Democrats call for masks to be required aboard planes

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A lone passenger wears a face mask April 18 as he heads to a United Airlines gate at the Colorado Springs Airport. | David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Democrats in Congress are increasingly pushing the Trump administration to require everyone on board an airplane to wear face masks, brushing aside the Federal Aviation Administration’s assertion that it doesn’t regulate public health.

Flight attendant unions have been asking for such a requirement for weeks; airlines have been inching toward mask requirements in recent days, though mostly for flight crews. JetBlue became the first airline to say it would voluntarily require its passengers to cover their faces earlier this week.

Now Democrats in the House and Senate are stepping up pressure on the FAA. On Wednesday, House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) spoke with the head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, and urged him to make face masks required for everyone.

House Transportation Chairman Peter DeFazio. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

He also asked Dickson to mandate that airlines adopt procedures for ensuring passengers are able to sit far enough apart that they maintain social distancing. Recent photos have shown planes with people sometimes sitting three abreast, with fellow passengers in rows directly in front and behind them, and without masks on, despite the CDC’s guidance to the contrary.

“I believe these measures are not only well within the FAA’s jurisdiction, but are also essential to protect frontline airline employees as well as the members of the flying public who still must travel during the pandemic,” DeFazio told POLITICO in a statement.

So far, the FAA has resisted calls to mandate protective gear, saying earlier this week that it is “not a public health agency,” but has been lending its aviation safety expertise to federal public health authorities.

The agency said in a statement that Dickson “appreciated the opportunity to speak with Chairman DeFazio and shares his concerns about the importance of protecting the health and safety of passengers and crews.”

Dickson has expressed an expectation that U.S. airlines follow CDC guidance, and the FAA is “working with air carriers to ensure they have processes in place for addressing public health risks for their crews and passengers,” the FAA statement continued.

Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) separately sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking for them to issue a rule requiring masks on board planes.

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