Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines on Thursday mandated that passengers must wear face masks on board planes, and more are likely to follow, following intense pressure from airline unions and some lawmakers.
Flight attendant unions and Democratic lawmakers have been pressing the federal government to mandate masks on planes. Regulators have so far resisted the pressure, but the airline industry is beginning to turn toward implementing mask requirements piecemeal anyway.
Delta and American’s news followed similar announcements by JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines. Other carriers are likely to follow suit — so far, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is the lone holdout among the nation's biggest airlines.
On Thursday, a union for flight attendants, which has been among the most vocal in pressing for all on board to wear face masks, suggested they still want the requirement to be mandated by regulators.
“We're happy to see airlines taking action to require masks or face coverings for passengers, crew and other frontline employees,” said Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “We continue to call on the federal government — whether it be DOT, FAA, HHS, CDC — to require masks for crew, frontline employees and all passengers."
In response to calls for a federal mandate, the Federal Aviation Administration has repeatedly noted that it is not a public health agency, and that its role in public health regulations is only an advisory one.
In a statement to POLITICO, the CDC said it knew about the request by Nelson's union for a mask mandate, and that there have been "initial discussions" that include the Transportation Department, the FAA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
"Currently, CDC recommends that everyone wear a cloth face covering over their nose and mouth when in a community setting, including during travel if they must travel," the agency said.
Delta and United's mask mandates will begin May 4, while American's will begin May 11.
Many airlines are already requiring crew members and other employees to wear face coverings.
Nearly 90 House Democratic lawmakers signed onto a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf asking that they require workers like ticket agents, flight attendants and TSA officers, as well as passengers, to wear masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.