Flight Attendants Urge Biden to Nix Mask Rule as Crews Struggle to Enforce

The union representing the flight attendants of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is asking President Joe Biden and other transportation officials to lift the federal mask mandate for public transportation, citing the difficulties crew members have faced trying to get passengers to comply.

"Serving onboard during these contentious times and enforcing mask compliance is one of the most difficult jobs we have ever faced as flight attendants," TWU Local 556 wrote. "The number of physical and verbal assaults in our workplace has increased dramatically, many of which are related to mask compliance."

The union, which represents more than 16,000 Southwest flight attendants, said that although the union initially understood the need for face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the number of declining cases across the nation should prompt reconsideration of the order.

Since the pandemic began, incidents involving unruly passenger have skyrocketed. Flight crews have experienced troubling safety concerns, including physical and verbal assault.

In the past year, face mask-related incidents have accounted for 66 percent of reports of unruly passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the letter addressed to Biden, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickinson and TSA Administrator David Pekosk, the union said flight attendants have not seen such a dramatic change in their workplace since 9/11.

"We strongly believe it is now time to give our members and passengers the opportunity to choose if they prefer to wear a mask while flying," the union wrote.

"In the spirit of bringing normalcy back to our frontlines as aviation's first responders, we ask that you consider lifting the federal mask mandate for airline travel and will move expeditiously to restore choice to aviation professionals and the flying public," the letter read.

State and local governments across the country have rescinded mask mandates in public settings, including schools, in recent months—all while a federal mandate has remained in place for those boarding, disembarking and traveling on public transportation.

Across the Atlantic, several British airlines have begun suspending mask requirements. But in the U.S., the order for face coverings on planes has been extended to April 18, when it will be reviewed again.

TWU Local 556 said that flight attendants hope to see the mask mandate lifted earlier than next month, requesting that action come "as soon as is practicable."

The union isn't alone. The International Air Transport Association, which represents nearly 300 airlines, and the U.S. Travel Association have been lobbying the White House not to extend the mandate again.

Newsweek reached out to the FAA for comment but did not hear back before publication.

Flight Attendant Mask Mandate
"Serving onboard during these contentious times and enforcing mask compliance is one of the most difficult jobs we have ever faced as flight attendants," TWU Local 556 wrote to President Joe Biden. Above, a masked flight attendant passes out refreshments on a flight from San Francisco to Newark, New Jersey, on October 27, 2020. Michael Loccisano/Getty