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Billings airport tightening mask requirements and increasing cleaning

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Posted at 7:12 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 21:12:37-05

Nearly two weeks after Gov. Greg Gianforte allowed the statewide mask mandate to expire, Montanans are stepping out mask-free.

But before people get too comfortable and book their first flight in over a year, they need to know travel restrictions in airports and planes across Montana are now tighter.

Whether you fly, board a train, or hop a city or commercial bus, a nationwide mandate says you must wear a mask.

“Even though the mandate has been dropped by the governor, and for the state of Montana, in this building, you still need to do it,” said Kevin Ploehn, the Billings director of aviation and transit.

He also said the presidential mandate doesn’t look much different in American airports, but it does have some teeth to it.

“The bite for airports that you wouldn't see any other transportation issue is that the TSA can give you a civil penalty, and that can be from $250 up to $1,500," he said.

The order brings the CDC, the TSA and every major airline under the same requirements and rules.

The same rules that United Airlines and other commercial airlines were already enforcing.

In fact, United and Delta both added non-compliant travelers to a no-flight list, keeping them from boarding their planes in the future.

United General Manager Brian Beam says United wants its customers confident and comfortable.

“We took enhanced cleaning right from the very beginning," he said.

A marriage last May with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic pushed United into a major cleaning process after every touchdown.

“Your tray tables, your overhead bins, the labs, the galleys are all being wiped down. So any area where you typically have surfaces,” he said.

On top of that, Beam says after every flight each plane is sprayed with an electrostatic mist.

“It's going into the air, sticking to the surfaces," he said.

That’s not the only extra cost commercial airlines are absorbing. Beam said when planes are in the air now, they are maximizing airflow while on the ground.

“The auxiliary power unit is an air exchange for every- depending on the size of the aircraft- every two to five minutes, it's exchanging 100% of the air in the aircraft, going through a HEPA filter, which is a medical-grade HEPA filter just like you'd find down here at your Billings Clinic or in St. Vincent's,” Beam said.

And studies back that up. Both a recent Harvard study and a Department of Defense study found high-performing ventilation systems and mandatory mask use, reduces the risk of viral transmission aboard an airplane.

Other studies, of course, find that coronavirus can and does spread on airline flights, especially if you remove your mask or use the restroom on the plane.

Both Ploehn and Beam say it’s going to take everyone following the rules to get airline travel back to where it needs to be.

“What we want to do is we want to give our customers the confidence that yes it is safe to fly," said Beam. “Is there risk. Yes, there's always risk there always has been. But we're doing everything we can to give you a safe reliable product.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people not travel during a pandemic.