Before there was a federal transportation mask mandate, individual U.S. airlines required customers to wear face coverings when flying. Those who refused were placed on airline “no-fly” lists — a tally that ballooned into the thousands amid pandemic-related conflict in the skies.
In the days since the mask mandate has fallen, several airlines have said they will consider allowing some of those passengers to return.
Some of the nation’s largest carriers are developing procedures to restore boarding privileges that were revoked for mask-related conflicts, a move that prompted outcry from the union representing workers who were on the front lines of enforcement. The decision comes after airlines and federal agencies spent more than a year developing deterrence and enforcement measures to battle confrontations often stemming from the mask requirement.
United Airlines, which has placed nearly 1,000 people on its list during the pandemic, will consider reinstatements on a case-by-case basis, with executives noting that those whose behavior escalated beyond refusing to wear a mask might still be banned. United President Brett Hart said Thursday the carrier would take a “thoughtful approach” to evaluating each case.
“As you can imagine for those who were banned during this time period, there was a range of behaviors,” he said during a company earnings call. “But there were those whose behavior went beyond the general refusal to wear a mask. We will evaluate that behavior and if we think [the individual] will present any risk to our team members or our customers. Those are individuals who would be less likely to be welcomed back to our airline.”
Executives at the nation’s largest air carrier, American Airlines, said it also is working on a process to determine whether customers banned for refusing to follow mask requirements would be allowed to resume travel. Airline officials said during an earnings call Thursday that it was too early to know whether the end of the federal mask mandate would have an effect on passenger bookings.
“It’s still very early to tell and really difficult to draw very much of a conclusion,” said Vasu Raja, American’s chief commercial officer. “There is nothing to indicate things were very up or very down.”
The federal mandate for transportation settings was put into place shortly after President Biden took office. After multiple extensions, it had been set to expire May 3, but U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle upended those plans Monday, ruling that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had exceeded its legal authority.
Around the country, most transportation agencies and airlines dropped the mandate Monday evening or Tuesday, even as public health officials warned that a new omicron subvariant poses a threat as caseloads rise across parts of the country.
The decision of air carriers this week to consider reinstating some banned passengers met with backlash from airline employees who often enforced the mask mandate. Flight attendants have been physically attacked and verbally abused over rules requiring face coverings.
“For airlines to allow previously banned, unruly passengers back on their planes without a clear vetting process is irresponsible when they haven’t consulted with the union, our essential workers, or even outlined a plan of how they will protect them,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, which represents more than 65,000 transportation workers at Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Alaska Airlines, American and Southwest Airlines.
The Justice Department this week filed notice of its plans to appeal Mizelle’s ruling, which blindsided administration officials and sparked days of debate about how to move forward. On Thursday, American Airlines officials declined to speculate on the effect an appeal might have on its operations, but said they saw no reason for the mandate to return.
“We don’t feel that reinstatement of the mandate is necessary at this time,” said Nate Gatten, American’s chief government affairs officer.
Delta, which had about 2,000 customers on its list, said it also is weighing which customers could be allowed to resume flying. Those cases would be evaluated on an individual basis and customers must “demonstrate an understanding of their expected behavior when flying with us,” the company said in a statement.
“Any further disregard for the policies that keep us all safe will result in placement on Delta’s permanent no-fly list,” the statement said. “Customers who demonstrated egregious behavior and are already on the permanent no-fly list remain barred from flying with Delta.”
Citing security protocols, Southwest Airlines declined to say how many people were on its list.
“The people no longer welcome to fly with us are on a list based on unruly and disruptive behavior, and that’s unaffected by the recent court decision,” the carrier said in a statement.
Alaska Airlines said customers who were placed on its list for mask noncompliance would have their flight privileges restored, but individuals whose behavior “was particularly egregious will remain banned.” The carrier said more than 1,700 people are on its list.
In the first months of the pandemic, before the federal mandate, it was left to each airline to enforce rules requiring people to wear masks when traveling commercially. Carriers created their own lists of passengers who refused to wear masks or displayed disruptive behavior. Those lists weren’t shared among airlines or with government agencies.
The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a “zero tolerance” policy to discourage bad behavior in response to onboard incidents during the pandemic and in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. That policy was made permanent this week, allowing the FAA to continue to move more quickly to assess civil fines against passengers who pose a safety risk on airplanes.
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