Hartsfield-Jackson faces hurdles enforcing masks in airport terminal

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on June 23, 2020. Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on June 23, 2020. Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As airlines step up enforcement of passenger mask requirements, airports like Hartsfield-Jackson International would like to do the same in the terminal.

But Hartsfield-Jackson’s hands are tied by a state executive order and different rules governing private businesses and public spaces. Airports are eyeing one possible solution: federal intervention.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and other major carriers have said they may temporarily revoke passengers' future flying privileges on the airline if they refuse to wear masks on the plane. Delta also has face mask requirements at its check-in lobbies, boarding gate areas and jet bridges, and strongly encourages face coverings in security lines and restrooms.

Hartsfield-Jackson, operated by the City of Atlanta, is "only permitted to strongly encourage" masks, according to spokeswoman Elise Durham. She added that the airport is "working through options."

While airlines are private businesses and have more leeway, she said the state of Georgia’s lack of a mask mandate limits what the airport can do.

Gov. Brian Kemp's current executive order in effect until June 30 says people in the state "are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings as practicable while outside their homes or place of residence, except when eating, drinking or exercising outdoors."

It also suspends enforcement of any county or municipal ordinance or order that is more or less restrictive than the governor’s order.

Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea, amid signs that coronavirus cases are on the rise again.

“Why don’t they want to wear one? Why isn’t it enforced?” said Arlene Gould, who lives in Buckhead. “It’s just something that upset me.”

Gould had family members recently travel through Hartsfield-Jackson who raised concerns that many of the people they saw in the airport were not wearing masks.

Atlanta resident William Roberts said when he was arriving back home on a flight Sunday, about 75% of the people he saw had masks on and he wondered why the airport would not require masks to enter the terminal. “When you are possibly affecting other people, it makes a difference,” he said.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said last month that she asked the governor’s office for the city to be allowed to ask people in Atlanta to wear masks where there are 10 or more people or there’s an inability to socially distance. “The governor is not supportive of that,” Bottoms told the Atlanta City Council. “As it relates to the governor’s order, we can’t be more restrictive than what he set forth.”

Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager John Selden said earlier this month that the airport is giving out roughly 500 masks a day, workers are wearing masks and Delta is also giving out masks to passengers who don’t have them.

“We can’t make the passengers wear them, but we have them available. We highly recommend them. We have signage to ensure that they put on masks,” Selden said during remarks to the Council for Quality Growth last month. “But there are certain people that just, just don’t want to do it. It’s OK.”

Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on June 23, 2020. Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Other airports have more leeway to require masks due to differences in local and state orders. Tampa International Airport announced Friday it is requiring all passengers to wear masks in the terminal, following a city-wide order put into place by the mayor of Tampa requiring anyone walking into a business to wear a mask or face covering, with limited exceptions.

Airports Council International - North America, an industry lobbying group, wants federal guidelines on wearing masks in airports.

As more people travel, "people will be bumping into each other" in airports, said ACI-NA president Kevin Burke during a Congressional committee hearing last week. "So for them to remain safe, wearing masks is important."

Absent federal guidelines, Burke said, “we would accept any regulations from state and local authorities.”

Even airlines would prefer not to have to go it alone as they try to enforce mask requirements.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said during an AXIOS interview Monday on HBO that the federal government should require masks on airplanes.

“If you take your mask off, no, we will not forcibly remove you from the plane,” Bastian said. “If the government were to mandate it I think that would help. Because if the government mandated, then you can enforce it.”

U.S. Government Accountability Office report on Tuesday noted that in 2015 during the Ebola epidemic, it recommended the U.S. Department of Transporation develop a national aviation prepardeness for communicable disease outbreaks, but there is still no comprehensive plan.

“Some aviation stakeholders have publicly highlighted the resulting piecemeal approach to adopting standards during the response to COVID-19, such as various airline and airport policies regarding facemasks, as demonstrating the need for a more coordinated response,” the GAO report said.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents flight attendants at United Airlines and other carriers, also advocated for federal regulations on masks during the Congressional hearing last week.

“Definitely we need to make sure that the mask policies are applied across the airport and the airplanes, and they’re backed up by federal regulations,” Nelson said.