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Transportation officials weigh options to enforce Biden's mask requirement for travelers

Federal transportation officials are considering a range of options to enforce President Joe Biden's...

Posted: Jan 25, 2021 12:13 PM

Federal transportation officials are considering a range of options to enforce President Joe Biden's new face mask requirement for interstate travelers, including the possibility of fines in the thousands of dollars, multiple sources told CNN.

The normal rulemaking process can take months, at least, to complete, so officials are believed to be considering emergency actions that could take effect much sooner. Biden signed an executive order Thursday mandating interstate travelers wear a mask, and on his first day in office, he challenged Americans to wear masks for 100 days to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Agencies are considering enforcement measures for the executive order such as civil penalties for air travelers from the Federal Aviation Administration, a broader order from the Department of Transportation applying to multiple modes of transit, and a Transportation Security Administration directive, the sources said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive and initial discussions among agency officials and with the transportation industry.

Several of the individuals described the conversations as preliminary and noted it was possible the approaches of each agency could change.

A possible outcome is a patchwork of measures from different agencies that oversee rules for different types of travel such as trains, buses, airplanes, public transportation and ferries. In addition to the FAA, the Transportation Department includes the Federal Railroad Administration overseeing trains, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration overseeing buses, and the Federal Transit Administration, which is involved in transit system oversight. The Coast Guard regulates ferry safety.

Federal action could provide greater consistency and more stringent penalties, and Biden directed multiple federal agencies to "immediately take action."

Mask requirements currently stem from local government orders governing terminals and airports, plus rules from individual companies and operators outlining passenger conduct.

The project comes as Biden's administration is still taking shape. Nominees to lead the Transportation, Labor, Homeland Security and Health departments have not yet been confirmed by the Senate. The nominee for transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, testified at his confirmation hearing that once he takes office, he wants to look at "all relevant authorities" to enforce mask wearing. Some agencies are currently led by senior career officials, and the administration's handpicked policy officials are just settling into their new jobs.

Possible fines

One approach under consideration is enforcing mask-wearing with civil penalties the FAA is allowed to assess against disruptive or non-compliant passengers, according to one of the sources familiar with the discussions. An early conversation included consideration of fines up to $20,000, according to one of the sources familiar with the discussions who stressed it was all preliminary. Agency attorneys were working on the issue, another source said. Two sources said the FAA could act within approximately two weeks.

The FAA policy could be accompanied with a formal or informal recommendation that airlines include the mask rule in the pre-flight safety instructions and demonstrations conducted by flight attendants, according to one of the sources.

At the same time, the Department of Transportation is said to be considering issuing a mask directive that would apply to multiple modes of transportation, according to two sources. It is not clear what form of action the DOT might use and when it could take effect.

Two sources familiar with the matter said Sunday that the Transportation Security Administration was in touch with industry officials as it considers how to act.

Spokespeople for the FAA and DOT declined to comment and referred CNN to the White House for comment on the plans. The White House did not comment when contacted by CNN.

The TSA told CNN in a statement it is "exploring how the agency, in conjunction with the DOT, FAA, CDC and TSA's security partners (i.e., airports, airlines), can work collaboratively to enforce the President's travel order for travelers to wear masks while in airports, on planes, trains, ferries, intercity buses, mass transit and passenger rail systems."

Industry wants action

In the industry, there is an appetite for action. Flight attendants and other transportation employees find themselves on the front lines as tense situations have in some cases turned rowdy, and even violent, when a passenger refuses to mask up.

Airlines for America, representing the largest US carriers, has said on several occasions it backs a federal mandate. It has asked the administration to limit the scope of an order to only passengers, citing other requirements for crew members.

The National Air Carrier Association, whose members include Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air, said Friday the forthcoming rules are "a critical and long-overdue step to ensure the safety of passengers, crewmembers and those working at airports and to eliminate any lingering uncertainty regarding mask requirements in commercial aviation."

The Association of Flight Attendants, a union which had urged the Trump administration to act last spring, called masks "vitally important" in the cabin "where proper social distancing is not an option."

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a Trump nominee serving a five-year term, has said he believes passengers should wear face masks but has not previously required it.

He did recently sign an order directing FAA officials to crack down on passengers who do not follow flight attendant instructions and are disruptive in flight, including not abiding by an airline's rule to wear a mask. The agency noted it can fine passengers as much as $35,000 for some violations.

The amounts of fines the FAA may levy for various violations are laid out in agency guidelines. Alleged violators may be able to negotiate down to a lower amount.

The most recent version of the guidelines -- amended earlier this year -- stipulates a fine of between $10,000 and $20,000 for a passenger who is "posing (an) imminent threat to safety of (an) aircraft or the collective safety of other individuals."

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