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Airlines Welcome Biden's New Mask Mandate

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mask up or you won't be allowed to board a plane, train or bus. President Biden is issuing an executive order today requiring passengers to wear face coverings during interstate travel. As NPR's David Schaper reports, airlines and their employees have been seeking a mandate like that almost since the pandemic began.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: By now, fights between airline passengers over someone's refusal to wear a face mask have become all too familiar.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There you go. Yeah. Yeah.

SCHAPER: Videos like this one of a brawl over masks that flight attendants were trying to break up are all over social media as some travelers decide that resisting wearing a mask is a cause worth fighting for.

TAYLOR GARLAND: People coming on board don't find masks to be essential, and they have challenged mask compliance across the board, partly because it has been made a political issue.

SCHAPER: Taylor Garland is spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at United and several other airlines. She says while some passengers refuse to wear masks before even boarding, many mask resisters take them off mid-flight to flaunt the airline's rules and verbally abuse and threaten flight attendants.

GARLAND: And that is concerning when you're up in the air 30,000 feet or above and don't have all the tools that you typically do on the ground.

SCHAPER: Airlines have banned thousands of passengers from flying with them again for refusing to wear masks. Leonard Marcus is director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health. He says while many people may not like wearing masks, the research shows they're a critical layer of protection. That's especially true when a person is trapped inside a narrow metal tube for hours at a time, possibly sitting just inches away from a fellow passenger.

LEONARD MARCUS: If everyone is wearing a mask, the risks of transmission are greatly reduced. And there's been a good deal of study about that. And that's particularly applicable on an aircraft because we're in close proximity to one another.

SCHAPER: Yesterday, President Biden ordered all employees and visitors to wear masks on federal lands and in federal buildings. Now his administration will require anyone traveling on a commercial airline, passenger train or inner-city bus to wear a face covering, too. Asked about that mandate in his Senate confirmation hearing today, Biden's nominee to be secretary of transportation, Pete Buttigieg, says it's needed to restore the confidence of the flying public.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: The idea of safety in air travel had one kind of meaning a year ago. It's taken on additional meaning now in the context of the pandemic. And it's one of the reasons why I think executive action on mask mandates is so important.

SCHAPER: In addition, Taylor Garland of the Association of Flight Attendants says the federally mandated mask order will carry more weight than an airline rule.

GARLAND: When the government establishes a requirement or a law, people listen. People will respond to the law more so than a specific airline policy or a flight attendant asking. So knowing that we have the backup of the federal government is essential to ensuring strict mask compliance across the board.

SCHAPER: In addition to the mask wearing mandate, next week, the Biden administration will start requiring international travelers coming into the U.S. to prove they've tested negative for COVID before boarding their flight. And they'll have to self-quarantine upon arrival. Airlines support the measures in hopes that it'll make people feel safe enough to book a flight again and hopefully spark something of a recovery in a business decimated by the pandemic.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.