Democrats in Congress are increasingly pushing the Trump administration to require everyone on board an airplane to wear face masks, brushing aside the Federal Aviation Administration's assertion that it doesn't regulate public health.
Flight attendant unions have been asking for such a requirement for weeks; airlines have been inching toward mask requirements in recent days, though mostly for flight crews. JetBlue became the first airline to say it would voluntarily require its passengers to cover their faces earlier this week.
Now Democrats in the House and Senate are stepping up pressure on the FAA. On Wednesday, House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) spoke with the head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, and urged him to make face masks required for everyone.
He also asked Dickson to mandate that airlines adopt procedures for ensuring passengers are able to sit far enough apart that they maintain social distancing. Recent photos have shown planes with people sometimes sitting three abreast, with fellow passengers in rows directly in front and behind them, and without masks on, despite the CDC’s guidance to the contrary.
"I believe these measures are not only well within the FAA’s jurisdiction, but are also essential to protect frontline airline employees as well as the members of the flying public who still must travel during the pandemic," DeFazio told POLITICO in a statement.
So far, the FAA has resisted calls to mandate protective gear, saying earlier this week that it is "not a public health agency," but has been lending its aviation safety expertise to federal public health authorities.
The agency said in a statement that Dickson "appreciated the opportunity to speak with Chairman DeFazio and shares his concerns about the importance of protecting the health and safety of passengers and crews."
Dickson has expressed an expectation that U.S. airlines follow CDC guidance, and the FAA is "working with air carriers to ensure they have processes in place for addressing public health risks for their crews and passengers," the FAA statement continued.
Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) separately sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking for them to issue a rule requiring masks on board planes.
"In the absence of federal action, different airlines and airports have adopted conflicting policies that will undermine overall public health if they are not unified around a single, strong standard,” the two wrote.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) weighed in this week too, tweeting that "the Trump Administration's failure to require everybody to wear masks in airports and airplanes will only lead to more sickness and death."
For the moment, most major U.S. airlines have mandated flight crew wear masks while only encouraging customers to do so, but a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the flight attendants union, told POLITICO earlier this week that more carriers will likely follow JetBlue's lead with a mandate.
DOT referred questions to the FAA. HHS did not respond to a request for comment.