Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Late last month, the TSA extended the federal mask mandate for airports, commercial air travel, rail systems and buses to Sept. 13 from the previous expiration date of May 11.

The move was widely supported by the travel industry. With Covid-19 continuing to kill approximately 800 people a day and herd immunity becoming increasingly elusive, I imagine the extension was an easy decision for the Biden administration. Nevertheless, it is likely to have at least one menacing consequence: more profanity, threats and worse from airline passengers who refuse to wear a mask.

Early this month, as part of its campaign to push back against a surge of unruly passenger behavior during the pandemic, the FAA announced seven new civil cases against passengers who refused to wear masks.

In the worst of those cases, at least as judged by the proposed fine amount, the FAA said a passenger flying JetBlue from the Dominican Republic to New York threw food and an alcohol bottle in the air, shouted obscenities, grabbed one flight attendant's arm and struck the arm of another flight attendant -- all in response to being told to wear a mask. 

As of early May, the agency said that it had received more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports from airlines since February, from which it had identified possible violations in approximately 260 cases. 

It's not possible to compare these with pre-February numbers because the FAA didn't keep data on unruly passenger reports until recently. But what the agency calls a "significant increase" in such reports, including a spate of incidents surrounding the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, prompted FAA administrator Steve Dickson to decide that month to enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward passengers who cause disturbances or fail to obey flight crew instructions. No more warnings or counseling, Dickson explained. Penalties include fines of up $35,000 and jail time. The zero-tolerance policy will remain in effect for the length of the federal mask mandate. 

It's likely that not all of those 1,300 unruly passenger reports relate to masks. But there can be no doubt that the vigorous opposition that mask requirements illicit from some Americans are a primary contributor to the amped-up atmosphere of defiance now being reported on U.S. commercial flights. 

In a recent NBC News interview, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union president Sara Nelson said that the abuse flight attendants have been subjected to of late is "off the charts." But she did at least offer a silver lining: Incident numbers, she said, seem to be holding steady even as the amount of flying has increased. 

I don't envy flight attendants as the peak summer travel period approaches. But it's important that airlines continue to strictly enforce the federal mask mandate, both as a public health measure and because plenty of Americans remain cautious about flying. The travel industry still needs the mandate to inspire confidence. 

Enforcement also remains key in airports, where it has been less consistent. On a per-square-foot basis, planes are more crowded than airports. But planes are also equipped with hospital-grade filters. And besides, during my recent travels, no plane has been as packed as the interterminal train at Denver Airport. I'm sure similar density can be found in pockets at other airports.

As to those who don't want to wear masks or don't believe in the effectiveness of masks, I'd simply beseech them to make this concession. After all, most flights will be over inside of a few hours. And wearing a mask beats a large fine any day. 

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