coronavirus

Plane, Train and Bus Travelers Still Need to Wear Masks, Even If They're Vaccinated

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • The CDC said fully vaccinated individuals can forgo masks indoors without social distancing.
  • The loosened guidelines do not apply to airports, airplanes, trains and buses, where federal rules still require all travelers wear masks.
  • Flight attendants have faced hundreds of passengers who have refused to follow the rules and onboard conflicts that have occasionally turned violent.

Fully vaccinated and planning to fly? You still need to wear a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors and don't have to physically distance in that setting either.

But a federal rule that requires that all air, rail and bus travelers over the age of 2 to wear a mask is still in effect, the Transportation Security Administration said Thursday. They are also required in bus and rail stations as well as airports. That policy is set to expire Sept. 14.

Airlines began requiring masks about a year ago at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and have banned hundreds of customers who have failed to comply. Carriers are now expecting travel to continue rebounding through the summer after more people have been vaccinated and attractions reopen.

United Airlines said the carrier will lift its mask requirement when the federal government does. For now, it will "continue to abide by this mandate and remind our customers that masks must be worn on our planes and in our terminals while this requirement is in effect."

Other airlines could follow suit, indicated Airlines for America, the lobbying group that represents United and other major U.S. carriers including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines.

"CDC's updated guidance for fully vaccinated people continues to require that all travelers wear face masks on airplanes and at airports, and U.S. airlines will enforce the requirement on flights as long as the federal mandate is in place," a spokesman for the group said.

It is not clear how airlines would verify passengers' vaccination status, if at all, if the CDC loosens guidance for air travel and other modes of transportation.

Flight attendant labor unions whose members were left to enforce airline policies urged the Biden administration for a mask mandate to help add more weight to the policy. That mandate took effect in February and was extended last month.

The Federal Aviation Administration in January implemented a "zero tolerance" policy for unruly travelers on board and fines of up to $35,000, noting an uptick in such cases, some of them related to passengers who refused to follow mask policies.

The FAA said it has received about 1,300 cases of unruly passengers from airlines since February and has so far found violations in about 260 of the cases.

The agency recommended a $32,750 fine for a JetBlue Airways passenger on a New York-bound Feb. 7 flight that returned to the Dominican Republic after the passenger allegedly failed to wear a face mask, threw food in the air, shouted at crew and struck a flight attendant's arm.

It also called for a $16,500 fine for a traveler on a Jan. 26 Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Sacramento, California, whom the FAA alleged refused to cover his nose and mouth, was asked to leave and allegedly hit a flight attendant with his bags.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents about 50,000 cabin crew members at more than a dozen airlines, said she is still in favor of passengers wearing masks on board flights.

"Rules for aviation safety are harmonized around the world, and we must have credibility in the safety of flight if the U.S. aviation industry is to regain access to the rest of the world and fully recover," she said in a statement.

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