Mask flouting no joke at 30,000 feet, aviation industry says

  • American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer wears a mask as required by a federal rule instituted Jan. 21.

    American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer wears a mask as required by a federal rule instituted Jan. 21. Courtesy of Dennis Tajer

  • Masks are required in O'Hare International Airport and on commercial flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a small number of passengers are refusing to comply.

    Masks are required in O'Hare International Airport and on commercial flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a small number of passengers are refusing to comply. Associated Press

  • Air travel is up after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the industry in 2020, but with more passengers comes an increase in people who refuse to wear masks on board.

    Air travel is up after the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the industry in 2020, but with more passengers comes an increase in people who refuse to wear masks on board. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 5/11/2021 10:56 AM

The minute flight attendants ask airplane passengers to put up their tray tables, there's typically a quick response.

But when it comes to COVID-19 mask requirements, compliance is not always automatic.

 

The Federal Aviation Administration reports a "disturbing increase" this year in travelers disrupting flights with threats or violence that partly stem from their refusal to wear masks.

The agency has received more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports from airlines since February and is cracking down on serious offenders, who could face fines of up to $35,000 and possible imprisonment.

"It's a federal mandate," commercial pilot Dennis Tajer of Arlington Heights said.

"A passenger not wearing a mask is like a passenger deciding to get up and walk around the airplane when the seat belt sign is on prior to landing. It's called noncompliance."

The occurrences are rare, but airlines take them seriously and are instituting their own consequences by banning passengers who flout face coverings.

Chicago's United Airlines has "banned about 750 passengers since our policy was put in place last year," spokeswoman Leslie Scott said. "The incidents themselves have occurred at all stages of the travel journey."

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The penalty, however, is not for life; it's for the term that the mask policy is in place, she noted.

Egregious occurrences include a man on a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Sacramento on Jan. 26 who refused to wear a mask, became combative and "used offensive language" to flight attendants, the FAA said. As the passenger walked with his luggage toward the exit door, he called each of the two flight attendants "pathetic" and hit one with his bags.

On Wednesday, the FAA proposed a fine of $16,500.

Another dangerous situation involved a flyer on a JetBlue Airlines plane from the Dominican Republic to New York City Feb. 7. She rejected requests to don a mask, threw an empty alcohol bottle that almost hit another passenger, tossed food into the air, swore at crew members and assaulted two flight attendants. The plane returned to the Dominican Republic as a result, and the FAA is proposing a $32,750 fine.

JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski said the carrier is grateful to its crews for enforcing mask rules and to customers "who tell us how important this requirement is toward keeping one another healthy and safe."

So far, 140 JetBlue customers have been banned from flying because of mask noncompliance.

The Daily Herald contacted a number of major airlines, and not all provided data on banned travelers. However, Spirit Airlines reported 604 passengers had lost flight privileges since the pandemic began.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Of the 1,300 unruly passenger reports, the FAA has identified 260 potential violations to date and has begun 20 enforcement cases with more expected.

"When a passenger is noncompliant, it takes the attention of the flight attendants," said Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association representing American Airlines pilots. "And if it continues, it takes the attention of the pilots.

"If there's 170 people on an airplane and one or two decide to be noncompliant, we owe it to those 169 or 168 to ensure we keep them safe. There's no time for debate when you're in a metal tube at 30,000 feet."

Before takeoff, Tajer makes an in-person announcement wearing his mask and reminding passengers of the federal mandate. It must resonate because he has yet to fly any scofflaws, Tajer said.

"Frankly, you don't want to meet me at the end of the flight with authorities because you didn't wear your mask. I'd rather meet you at the beginning of the flight with a smile under my mask and an agreement that we're in this together."

Got an opinion about masks on planes? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

You should know

May is Bicycle Safety Month, and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is reminding drivers to watch for cyclists and parents to review the state's Bicycle Rules of the Road with children. Last year, 28 cyclists died in crashes in Illinois. Nationwide, children under 14 account for 5% of all bicycle fatalities. And don't forget helmets -- they can reduce head injuries by about 85%.

Gridlock alert

Expect delays if you're near Route 47 in Huntley on Wednesday. The road will be closed at the Union Pacific Railroad tracks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Crews will be repairing the crossing, and detours will be posted.

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