U.S. extends airplane mask mandate through April 18

Key Points
  • The U.S. is extending a requirement that masks are worn on planes, trains and other forms of transportation until the middle of next month.
  • The mandate was set to expire March 19.
  • The short extension suggests the U.S. is considering lifting the mandate this spring.
A sign reads "Wear A Mask" at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.
Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Transportation Security Administration is extending a federal requirement that travelers wear masks on airplanes, at airports, on trains and buses through April 18, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

The mandate was set to expire on March 19.

An extension of the mandate comes as the Biden administration, cities and states have rolled back mask mandates and other pandemic policies elsewhere as Covid cases drop.

The shorter extension of the policy compared with previous announcements suggests President Joe Biden and the CDC are weighing whether to lift the mandate entirely this spring, if Covid cases continue to fall.

The CDC plans to work with government agencies over the next month to "help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor," it said in a statement.

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The CDC said the new rules will be based on Covid cases, new variant risk "and the latest science."

Airlines and other travel industry groups last month urged the White House to lift Covid testing requirements for inbound international travelers, including returning U.S. citizens, as some countries, such as the U.K., loosen entry requirements.

The U.S. Travel Association, whose members include big hotel chains, airlines and tourism boards, on Thursday again pressed the Biden administration to lift the mask rules and scrap the international Covid test requirement.

"The travel industry continues to be challenged with a slow economic recovery even with improved public health metrics in the U.S. and medical advancements, especially in the business and international travel segments," it said in a statement. "The Biden administration can help to normalize travel conditions in their April 18 framework by repealing both the pre-departure testing requirement for vaccinated international inbound air travelers and the federal mask mandate."

The White House and CDC didn't comment.

The Biden administration ordered air, bus and rail travelers to wear masks, including at airports and train stations, shortly after the president took office in January 2021. The government repeatedly extended it over the past year, mostly recently in December.

Airlines had issued their own requirements since spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic, but then-President Donald Trump didn't issue a government mandate, which labor unions had pushed for then.

More than 71% of the record 5,981 reports of unruly airline passenger behavior last year have been tied to disputes over mask mandates, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Transport Workers Union, the second-largest U.S. airline union, said it supported federal guidance based on CDC recommendations but said "it should not be overlooked that the mask mandate has led to increased incidents of aggressive behavior from airline passengers."

Reports of harassment and even assault have increased during the pandemic.

"Unruly passengers were an issue that our members dealt with before the pandemic, but we have seen this behavior dramatically increase over the past two years since mask mandates were enacted," the union said. "Regardless of how the TSA moves forward after April, any violence against flight crew should not be tolerated, and measures should be put in place to better protect them."

A spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the country's largest flight attendant union, said the AFA did not ask the Biden administration to extend the mandate.

"Some Flight Attendants have said they want the mask mandate extended and others have been adamant that they do not," said the AFA in a statement. The union represents some 50,000 cabin crew members at United, Spirit, Hawaiian and others. 

"We continue to advise the public of the role of Flight Attendants so that the public is not focusing frustrations on the crew, in response to any of our safety instructions," the union said.