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FAA Must Maintain Zero Tolerance Mask Enforcement Policy as Another Passenger Sparks Emergency

Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio has called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) not to sunset its “zero tolerance” enforcement policy with respect to passengers who refuse to wear masks and cause disturbances on commercial flights. This policy, which was adopted in January and is slated to end March 30th, minimizes any deviation from the FAA’s assessment of strict penalties and fines of up to $35,000 for any passenger who refuses to wear a mask on a plane, or poses a danger to flight crews and other passengers.

In his letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, Chair DeFazio highlighted his concerns about recent media reports suggesting the FAA may sunset the policy prematurely, and noted his own experience with fellow passengers not complying with the federal mask mandate during travel between his congressional district in Oregon and Washington, D.C.

DeFazio wrote that he is “underwhelmed” by airlines’ instructions regarding mask use. “I have observed passengers covering their noses and mouths with bandanas, t-shirts, and other materials that do not comply with the federal mask mandate. I would urge you to direct airlines to provide clear instructions at every contact point with passengers—at booking, at check-in, at the gate, and on the plane—regarding acceptable masks. Airlines should clearly remind passengers of the FAA’s zero-tolerance enforcement policy in these communications, as well.

“You have ample authority to vigorously enforce the mask requirement, under both the President’s executive order requiring mask use as well as independent statutory authority to fine passengers who fail to comply with crewmember instructions, such as the instruction to wear a mask,” Chair DeFazio wrote. “I strongly urge you to continue using these authorities to ensure that passengers who refuse to wear masks on airplanes face appropriate consequences and are liable for a $35,000 fine.”

Last month, the FAA fined a Delta passenger $27,500 for conduct in connection with the mask requirement. And on March 12, the FAA announced it is proposing a $14,500 civil penalty against an airline passenger for allegedly interfering with flight attendants who instructed him to wear a face mask and stop consuming alcohol he had brought on board the aircraft.

On a Dec. 23, 2020 jetBlue Airlines flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York to the Dominican Republic, the passenger crowded the traveler sitting next to him, spoke loudly, and refused to wear his face mask, the FAA alleges. Flight attendants moved the other passenger to a different seat after they complained about the man’s behavior.

A flight attendant warned the man that jetBlue’s policies required him to wear a face mask, and twice warned him that FAA regulations prohibit passengers from drinking alcohol they bring on board an aircraft. Despite these warnings, the passenger continued to remove his face mask and drink his own alcohol, the FAA alleges.

A flight attendant issued the passenger a “Notice to Cease Illegal and Objectionable Behavior,” and the cabin crew notified the captain about his actions two separate times. As a result of the passenger’s actions, the captain declared an emergency and returned to JFK, where the plane landed 4,000 pounds overweight due to the amount of fuel on board.

Unfortunately, incidents such as these will not vanish by the end of the month, the FAA will therefore need to continue with its policy and enforcement to prevent further increase or escalation.

After some states relaxed coronavirus restrictions, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued reminders across its social media platforms that masks were still required when traveling and at transportation hubs. And on March 15, the Department of Homeland Security published an official notice in the Federal Register that the Transportation Security Oversight Board has ratified a TSA surface transportation security directive requiring mask wearing on public transportation and at transportation hubs to protect the safety and security of the traveling public and the transportation system.  The directive will remain in effect until at least May 11, 2021, and may be extended.

This story was updated on March 16 to include details of the new security directive.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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