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17 Jun, 2020 18:35

#WalkAway founder removed from flight for refusal to wear mask, as US airline trade group threatens to blacklist violators

#WalkAway founder removed from flight for refusal to wear mask, as US airline trade group threatens to blacklist violators

Political activist Brandon Straka was removed from an American Airlines flight for refusing to wear a mask the day trade group Airlines for America announced that passengers who refuse to mask up can be blacklisted from flying.

Straka, a former Democratic Party member who very publicly left the party and started the #WalkAway movement, revealed he was removed from an American Airlines plane at Dallas Airport for refusing to wear a mask on Wednesday, noting on Twitter that it was the “1st time this has happened” to him, and complaining the mask requirement was “not a federal law.” Flight attendants apparently begged to differ, telling him it was the law – though no such legislation exists.

Straka claimed the flight manager apologized to him after he was removed from the Tulsa-bound flight, and he has been contacted by the official American Airlines Twitter account. 

Earlier on Wednesday, a representative from Airlines for America (A4A) explained that passengers who decline to don a mask during a flight will be reported to the airline’s operations center, where the company would then choose whether – and for how long – to blacklist the offender. Discipline, A4A senior vice president Sharon Pinkerton stressed, would come after the flight landed – not before it took off.

The call somewhat clarified the threats implied in A4A’s statement earlier this week, which alerted travelers that several US airlines planned to impose “appropriate consequences for passengers who are found to be in noncompliance with the airline’s face covering policy, up to and including suspension of flying privileges.” Several American carriers have signed up to the call, including JetBlue, Delta, and American, though their “no-fly” lists are apparently internal and unrelated to the infamous federal “no-fly” list, a subset of the US terror watchlist that was declared unconstitutional in September.

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United Airlines announced on Monday that all non-mask wearers would be blacklisted starting Thursday – a policy it plans to implement for at least 60 days. Passengers with disabilities or medical conditions that prevent them wearing a face covering, and small children, are exempt; all others must wear the face covering unless they’re eating or drinking. Violators get two verbal warnings and a friendly offer of a mask, but if gentle persuasion doesn’t work, they’re reported by the flight attendant, and face an investigation by a “security team” at their destination. A4A’s Monday statement promises airlines will “clearly articulate” their face-covering policies in customer communications – though it’s not clear if American did so before Straka’s flight.

Some have questioned whether the trade group has the authority to mandate masks or punish violators at all. Noting that the airlines haven’t modified their “contracts of carriage” to reflect the mask requirement, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt called the no-mask ban threat “health safety theater,” telling Forbes “there’s no substance to it” and suggesting airlines desperate for customers would be reluctant to blacklist anyone – especially frequent fliers. United and American Airlines are operating at only 30 percent and 55 percent of capacity, respectively, compared to last year.

However, federal authorities have thus far shied away from issuing their own rules about masks. Neither the Department of Transportation (DoT) nor the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have made face coverings mandatory. The FAA explained it was “not a public health agency” and, instead, urged A4A to adopt “clear, enforceable policies” regarding masks, while the DoT agreed mask-wearing was not the federal government’s business and should “be resolved between parties of mutual concern” – that is, airline management and labor unions.

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US public health authorities have repeatedly changed their guidance regarding masks, initially insisting the face coverings were unnecessary for anyone except healthcare workers, but more recently declaring them the quickest route out of lockdown restrictions. The World Health Organization advises masks should be worn by the sick to protect the healthy, yet have little utility when worn by healthy people. Many cities and businesses have nevertheless adopted mask requirements, and the accessory has become something of a political statement, with conservatives and libertarians shunning it, while liberals embrace it.

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