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The number of Americans getting on airplanes has sunk to a level not seen in more than 60 years as people shelter in their homes to avoid catching or spreading the new coronavirus. (April 10)

AP Domestic

United Airlines on Friday became the first large U.S. airline to require flight attendants to wear face masks, joining discounter Frontier Airlines as airlines ramp up efforts to protect workers and passengers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Airline unions, which have demanded increased protections as the coronavirus crisis claimed more lives, including airline and airport employees, applauded the move.

Flight attendant and pilot union leaders and consumer advocates, including FlyersRights, said much more needs to be done on the health front to help stop the spread of the virus and reassure travelers that it’s safe to board a plane.

“In order for travel demand to return, people have to have confidence in flying,” Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said. “That means we have to take steps right now to contain the virus.”

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, was more blunt in a memo to its members this week  after a coronavirus safety alert it considered lacking.

“This is not time for words like ‘should,’ ‘may,’ and ‘recommend.’ This is the time for ‘must,’ ‘shall,’ and ‘mandate,’ ” the union said. “In order to instill confidence in air travel today and tomorrow and protect the airlines’ role as a national security asset, we must have government mandates … during this period of threat and recovery.”

High on the union and consumer groups’ wish list: requiring that passengers wear face masks.

Nelson, whose union represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, including United and Frontier, said the federal government should provide disposable cloth or paper masks to all airports to hand out to passengers as long as coronavirus remains a threat to public health.

“These should be provided free to all members of the public entering airport buildings with the stipulation that they be worn at all times on airport property and on airplanes, and only removed momentarily when necessary for identity verification or food and drink,” Nelson said in an April 23 letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  

Nelson acknowledged a face mask shortage means that a broad mask rollout can’t happen overnight, but she said it needs to happen as quickly as possible.

“An airport could decide to do that themselves right now,” she said.

The Transportation Security Administration, which has seen nearly 500 employees test positive for coronavirus and four die from the virus, said in mid-April that passengers may wear a mask during the screening process but might be asked to adjust it to confirm their identity when their boarding passes and IDs are checked.  

FlyersRights, a nonprofit group, called on airlines this week to require all passengers to wear masks in addition to flight attendants and advocated that passengers, flight crews and other airline workers have their temperatures tested before flying.

Paul Hudson, the group’s president, said in a letter to the heads of the International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization that airlines have failed at “prioritizing the health and safety of passengers and communities.”

Canada requires air travelers to wear face masks or coverings

Canada is a step ahead of the USA when it comes to face mask requirements.

As of April 20, passengers on all flights departing or arriving at Canadian airports have to show they have a nonmedical mask or face covering.

They have to wear a mask at airport screening checkpoints.

“Canadians should continue to follow public health advice and stay at home if possible,” Marc Garneau, Canada’s minister of transport, said in a statement. “However, if you need to travel, wearing a face covering is an additional measure you can take to protect others around you, especially in situations where physical distancing guidelines cannot be maintained.”

Delta CEO advocates masks

Delta Air Lines, which doesn’t require flight attendants to wear masks but, like other airlines, provides them for workers and encourages them to use them, offers masks to customers who don’t bring them, CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday.

Most travelers, few as there are these days, already have one.

“The majority of customers that are flying are carrying their own masks, as they should,” he said. “And they should wear masks when they travel, at least until the virus is contained.”

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