Airline passengers are finding ‘creative ways’ to remove masks, American pilot says

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American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer has taken several flights during the coronavirus pandemic, both in the cockpit and as a union official, and has noticed something unsettling lately: passengers removing their masks for more than eating or drinking.

“We’re starting to see people take creative ways on the aircraft of temporary relief from wearing the masks,” he said in an interview Thursday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“You see it drop down over the nose. Or you might see it used as more of a chin guard,” he said.

Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, doesn’t think the moves are malicious but “just natural human reactions.”

He said that while most passengers are complying with American’s requirement to wear masks throughout the flight to thwart the spread of coronavirus, some are being lax. But without a federal mask mandate on planes it’s hard for flight attendants to force compliance.

American and other airlines have toughened their stance in recent weeks, warning travelers they risk not being able to fly again during the pandemic if they don’t comply, but Tajer said that only goes so far.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have not heeded repeated calls from airline union officials, consumer advocates and others for a mask mandate on planes.

Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a lineup of public health measures the DOT and federal Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments want airlines and airports to implement to mitigate the risks of COVID-19. But the “Runway to Recovery” plan said only that “passengers should wear face coverings everywhere in the air transportation environment.”

Tajer called it a strongly worded report but told CNBC it fell short because “it ended with nothing but recommendations.”

In a statement, a DOT spokesperson said Chao and the agency “have been clear that passengers should wear face coverings while traveling by air, for their own protection and the protection of those around them. Face coverings are especially important in situations where social distancing is not feasible.”

FlyersRights, a passenger advocacy group, was more critical of the plan, calling it “too little, too late” in a statement Thursday.

“The U.S. federal government has abdicated its responsibility to help stop the spread of the coronavirus through domestic air travel,” Paul Hudson, the group’s president, said in a statement. “Regulation of air travel is solely a federal issue, but the DOT refuses to mandate rules on masks, social distancing, cleaning, and measures to discourage travelers from nonessential travel or travel when sick.”

If mandates aren’t put in place, the group says, “confusion and fear will reign as U.S. travelers are blackballed internationally, airlines go bankrupt, and thousands more are sickened.”

In his CNBC interview, Tajer invited Chao and FAA administrator Stephen Dickson to ride along with him to see what flying is like during the pandemic.

“Grab a middle seat. Grab a seat when the airplane is full,” he said. “You’ll start to see behavior that you’re not going to be pleased with.”

S: USA TODAY

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