Hoping to Avoid ‘Virus Warhead,' Pilots' Union Wants Mask Mandate on Planes

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American Airlines announced Monday it would begin handing out masks to passengers in May, a move that doesn’t go far enough, according to the union that represents American pilots.

Union leaders say they want the FAA to order passengers on all airlines to wear masks.

“We are unique in that we’re in a tight space. We travel at near the speed of sound. And we want to make sure that we’re not a missile with a virus warhead,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association.

Erin Strine knows how packed a plane can get – a frightening sight amid a deadly pandemic – when she recently boarded an American Airlines flight from New York to North Carolina.

“So I was one of the last people onto the plane. And to walk on and realize how full it was was shocking,” Strine said.

“And especially coming from New York City,” she said. “Which has been the epicenter of the pandemic in this country. To see people not wearing masks, it was shocking.”

To illustrate her point, Strine took this video:

American Airlines will begin to offer masks to passengers in May and will require flight attendants to wear them as well.

But American pilots want the Federal Aviation Administration to order passengers on all airlines to wear a mask.

While it supports the CDC’s recommendation that people wear cloth face coverings in public, the FAA does not require plane passengers or cabin crews to do the same thing.

“Clearly the CDC recommendations are more than a step in the right direction …unfortunately, the FAA washed its hands of mandating that,” Tajer said.

In a statement to NBC 5 Investigates, an FAA spokesperson said: "The FAA has statutory authority and responsibility to promote the safe operation of civil aircraft. The FAA is not a public health agency."

Nevertheless, the agency said it was working with health authorities to issue the best guidance for flight crews.

With no mandate, American Airlines said it did not plan to require travelers to wear masks, but is telling them they may need to cover their face in airports where local rules require them to do so.

“We’re encouraging our passengers, until it’s mandated across our country, to have a face mask on,” Tajer said. “It serves you. It serves the flight crew. And, frankly, it serves what we’re trying to do across our country.”

The pilots’ union also wants the government to require temperature checks for passengers, at least during the height of the pandemic, something American Airlines is already doing for all ground crew and some flight crews at DFW Airport.

American and other airlines said they are stepping up cabin and cockpit cleaning, with American pilots saying they won’t even push back from the gate right now if they don’t have supplies to wipe down the cockpit first.

Wipes should be mandatory equipment, the pilots said, noting that about 70 American pilots have so far tested positive for COVID-19 – a number the airline has declined to confirm.

American Airlines is not the first to expand moves for passengers to wear masks.

This week, JetBlue became the first U.S. airline to announce that, beginning May 4, all passengers must wear a face covering over their nose and mouth for the duration of their flight. Those coverings will also be required during check-ins, boarding and exiting the plane, JetBlue said.

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