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President Biden to mandate masks on planes. Will it reduce number of in-flight scofflaws?

President Joe Biden has promised a mask mandate on flights, trains and buses for months, and he plans to make it a reality on Thursday.


Biden, who said on his first day in office that "changing the course of the COVID crisis'' is a top priority, plans to issue an executive order promoting COVID-19 safety in domestic and international travel. It follows an order mandating masks on federal property announced Wednesday.


The travel order will require people to wear masks in airports, on certain modes of public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, according to White House officials.


There are still unanswered questions, including when the policy will take effect, what the term "many'' entails and how the new rule will be enforced.


But travel industry officials are encouraged.


Paul Hudson, president of consumer advocate FlyersRights, said Biden's move should make mask enforcement easier and more consistent across airlines and boost passenger compliance.


Airlines already require masks and ban passengers who don't comply, but without a federal mandate, passenger cooperation is basically voluntary, he said. Even with the Federal Aviation Administration's recent order that it will no longer give warnings to misbehaving travelers.


"Suppose we had the same method for (in-flight) seats belts or smoking?'' he said. "We said, 'Well, we recommend you have seat belts. We recommend you don't smoke.' How would that work? It would be chaotic.''


Veteran travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research said mask wearing will go from an airline policy to a government policy, with muscle behind it.


"It is a federal policy and you have two choices: comply or don’t fly,'' he said.


United Airlines President Scott Kirby said 99.999% of the airline's passengers obey in-flight rules.


"They appreciate the safety policies, they appreciate the mask policies,'' he said.


He praised the airline's gate agents and flight attendants for handling issues with those passengers who don't comply but said the federal mask mandate is welcome.


"We appreciate the mask mandates that we expect to come out of the new administration,'' Kirby said in an interview Thursday on CNBC.


Airlines, unions and consumer advocates have been calling for a federal mask mandate since the early months of the coronavirus pandemic but found no support from President Donald Trump's administration.


As recently as October, a FlyersRights proposal for mask mandates on planes and at airports was rejected by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Among the reasons cited: most airlines already have mask policies and the department's view is that there should be "no more regulations than necessary.''


U.S. airlines began requiring masks in early May to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as travelers began flying again. They tightened their rules a few months later, restricting the types of face coverings that can be worn on planes and warning passengers who don't comply that they will be banned from flying with that airline again during the pandemic.


Airline workers – especially flight attendants – have found themselves in the role of mask police. To date, nearly 3,000 passengers have been banned from Delta, United, Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian and Allegiant airlines, according to the latest figures from airline representatives The actual number is likely much higher since two of the country's largest airlines, American and Southwest, don't reveal how many passengers they have banned.


"Almost a year in, we still do not have basic federal safety requirements such as a mask mandate,'' the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a statement last week. "We're eager to work with the Biden administration to protect aviation workers and passengers.''


This article originally appeared on USA Today

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