United Airlines on Friday became the first large U.S. airline to require flight attendants to wear face masks, joining discounter Frontier Airlines as airlines ramp up efforts to protect workers and passengers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Airline unions, which have demanded increased protections as the coronavirus crisis claimed more lives, including airline and airport employees, applauded the move.
Flight attendant and pilot union leaders and consumer advocates, including Flyers Rights, said much more needs to be done on the health front to help stop the spread of the virus and reassure travelers that it's safe to board a plane.
"In order for travel demand to return, people have to have confidence in flying,'' Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said. "That means we have to take steps right now to contain the virus.''
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, was more blunt in a memo to its members this week after a coronavirus safety alert it considered lacking.
“This is not time for words like ‘should,’ ‘may,’ and ‘recommend.’ This is the time for ‘must,’ ‘shall,’ and ‘mandate,’ ” the union said. "In order to instill confidence in air travel today and tomorrow and protect the airlines’ role as a national security asset, we must have government mandates … during this period of threat and recovery.”
High on the union and consumer groups' wish list: requiring that passengers wear face masks.
Nelson, whose union represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, including United and Frontier, said the federal government should provide disposable cloth or paper masks to all airports to hand out to passengers as long as coronavirus remains a threat to public health.
"These should be provided free to all members of the public entering airport buildings with the stipulation that they be worn at all times on airport property and on airplanes, and only removed momentarily when necessary for identity verification or food and drink,'' Nelson said in an April 23 letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.