Do I have to wear a mask when I travel by plane? If yes, why?

Very simply, yes, you have to wear a mask if you intend to travel by plane. There are limited exceptions to this, and few will qualify for the exemption.

So, what happened, when, by who, how long will last, and what happens if people don’t comply?

Since March 2020, the world has been trying to prevent the spread of COVID, telling the public to wear a mask. It appears that one of the biggest methods of virus transfer occurs when out in public. While traveling by air with everyone taking reasonable precautions, the likelihood appears to be low for COVID transmission. The problem comes from a small percentage of travelers, who for reasons specific to them, choose not to wear a mask, or not wear it appropriately. Wearing a mask but inappropriately does not help curb the spread of the virus.

There is no question that many people are experiencing COVID mask fatigue. They’ve had enough of being told to wear a mask and will do anything or everything they can to avoid wearing it appropriately. Regardless of a person’s personal opinion, cities, states, and the federal government all have issued their own set of requirements with regard to being out in public and the need to wear a mask at various places. For most places of business, it has now become no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. There is no getting around this; in order to enter and remain at some businesses, the mask must be worn at all times, and this holds true at airports and inside airplanes.

How did this all come about? For many months, airlines have required passengers to wear a mask when on board the plane. There were some exceptions to not wearing the mask, which included when a person was eating or drinking. Some passengers exploited that and would nurse a drink for an extended period of time. Others would take their time eating to have their mask down for the majority of their flight. Because of the need to wear a mask when on a plane, flight attendants have been put in the position of having to enforce the mask requirement.

There have been numerous incidents where passengers exhibited very angry, almost out of control behavior towards the crewmembers and also amongst other passengers. The disruption on board airplanes and throughout public transportation has reached a point where a firm set of rules has been put in place through executive order by President Biden. A Center for Disease Control law was published, related to wearing a mask and the TSA is now charged with the enforcement aspect of passengers needing to wear a mask from the time they pass through the airport security checkpoint until  passengers reach their destination and clear the security exit checkpoint.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also decided “enough” of this unruly behavior and put the traveling public on notice. On January 13, 2021, FAA Administrator Steve Dickenson announced the zero-tolerance policy for passenger disruptions on board airplanes.

The FAA Administrator made clear, “Historically, the agency has addressed unruly-passenger incidents using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. Effective immediately, however, the FAA will not address these cases with warnings or counseling. The agency will pursue legal enforcement action against any passenger who assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew members. This policy will be in effect through March 30, 2021.

Passengers who interfere with, physically assault, or threaten to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft face stiff penalties, including fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment. This dangerous behavior can distract, disrupt, and threaten crewmembers’ safety functions.”

The number of incidents and anger and/or violence of people refusing to wear a mask has become outrageous. Some examples of passengers getting out of control are here, here, and here. Due to these events and numerous others like it, the FAA has taken on a zero-tolerance approach towards passengers misbehaving on board airplanes as relates to the need to wear a mask. At the moment, the zero-tolerance policy is scheduled to last until March 31, 2021, subject to extension. This means, from the time a person gets on board an airplane until they get off the airplane, they may be subject to the FAA’s zero-tolerance policy should they not comply with the federal requirement to wear a mask on board the airplane and not follow crewmember instructions when advised to keep the mask on properly.

What happens to those who don’t comply?

From the FAA press release, it appears that the FAA intends to impose monetary fines against passengers for noncompliance if they refuse to wear a mask and not following crewmember instructions to put one on and/or wear it appropriately. To quote the press release, “Passengers who interfere with, physically assault, or threaten to physically assault aircraft crew or anyone else on an aircraft face stiff penalties, including fines of up to $35,000 and imprisonment. This dangerous behavior can distract, disrupt, and threaten crewmembers’ safety functions.”

No one knows just yet how much a person may be fined for not following crewmember instructions on this issue. It would not be worth it to try and find out how serious the FAA is or how much the penalty will be for not refusing to wear a mask. For most flights within the United States, the longest flight is approximately six hours flying from coast to coast. While it may not necessarily be pleasant having to wear a mask, not only could passengers find themselves being fined by the FAA, each individual airline has the right to place a passenger on their own no-fly list. With that in mind, is it worth being fined thousands of dollars and not be able to fly on your preferred airline over not wearing a mask for a few hours? It’s better to comply and fly than the alternative consequences.

Check your attitude and principles at the gate and wear the mask as required by federal law, unless you prefer to potentially lose flight privileges, pay money from your bank account, and be possibly be made famous on social media.