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In Flight Mask Mandate Unravels

After the Biden administration sought to extend a longstanding U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a federal judge in Florida, ruled the directive unlawful, opening up a loophole for airlines (many of whom have publicly voiced support for the end of the federal mandate) to allow customers to make their own decision to mask or not.

American, United and Delta all made statements to the press and to the public that masks will now be optional.

Delta’s media center page stated: “The Transportation Security Administration is no longer enforcing the federal mandate as of April 18.

“The choice is yours: Delta people and customers may still choose to wear a mask. Experts agree that wearing a well-fitting mask–such as a KN95–protects the wearer, even if others around them are not wearing masks. As Delta people and customers adapt to this change, please extend some extra patience to your crew and in-flight neighbors.

“As Covid-19 continues transitioning to a manageable respiratory virus with improved treatments, widespread vaccine availability and other medical advancements to prevent the worst outcomes, Delta has made some adjustments to Covid-era protocols while following the science and maintaining the Delta CareStandard. We remain committed to layers of protection like hospital-grade HEPA filters, regular cleaning and sanitization of high-touch surfaces on the planes and in the airport, a dedicated cleanliness team dedicated to ensuring high standards are maintained.”

The airline’s page also shared a “pro tip”: “Customers are encouraged to carry a mask throughout the journey as face coverings may continue to be a requirement in other aspects of travel, like Lyft rides or when traveling internationally.”

Airlines for America (A4A), the industry advocacy group which had long pleaded for an end to in-flight masking, said, “”The high level of immunity and widespread vaccine accessibility in the U.S. coupled with the hospital-grade cabin air on aircraft provide a strong, science-based foundation for passengers to travel with confidence as restrictions are lifted on our nation’s airlines.”

“We look forward to welcoming millions of travelers back to the skies this summer to reunite with loved ones, attend conferences or to take a vacation.”

Read MoreNew CDC Guidelines: Still No Large Gatherings, But No Masks Outdoor If Vaxed

Unmasking Blow Back

While it was widely reported that the Biden administration would put a pause on fighting or working to repeal the unmasking ruling while the CDC weighs in, it seems unlikely that Covid-fatigued passengers will be persuaded to put the genie back in the bottle and mask up in a climate of increased tolerance to the grey area of widespread vaccinations and the perception that the vaccine has rendered Covid’s myriad permutations less deadly and more endemic.

On the frontlines of masking, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (afacwa.org) issued a statement:

“We will soon have more legal analysis on what this means and what next steps may be taken in court by the government. We urge focus on clear communication so that Flight Attendants and other frontline workers are not subject to more violence created by uncertainty and confusion.

“Immediately, we urge calm and consistency in the airports and on planes. The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos. Traveling can be stressful enough and safety comes first with respect for everyone utilizing collective modes of transportation.

“In aviation operations, it is impossible to simply flip a switch from one minute to the next. It takes a minimum of 24-48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate this throughout the entire network. Policies and procedures must be updated and thoroughly communicated to hundreds of thousands of employees, along with millions of travelers. Announcements and signage, electronic and physical must be updated.

“We encourage travelers to check the latest updates from airlines for specific travel requirements while airlines implement any new policies. Flight Attendants and other aviation workers should check for the latest instructions from your airline and proceed accordingly.

“While we all look forward to the day masks are no longer required, we also know the federal mask mandate for transportation was critical in its early days for confidence in travel and safety for workers and travelers while mitigation factors such as vaccines, adequate supplies of PPE, and testing became more accessible. We urge all leaders to consider a thoughtful transition and implementation to any new policy, which also includes on-going personal choice of protection for crew and passengers.

“We urge everyone to practice patience, remain calm, and to continue to follow crewmember instructions. And we remind passengers that it is legally required to follow crewmember instructions, and that disruptive behavior has serious consequences as it puts everyone at risk. Our workspace is your travel space. Let’s get where we’re going, together.”

Henry Harteveldt, San Francisco-based travel industry analyst and principal at Atmosphere Research, told Smart Meetings: “The mask mandate horse has left the barn. Unless we see Covid cases surge to what would be considered crisis levels, where lockdowns might be necessary, or if the Biden Administration sees it as helpful for the midterm elections (which I do not believe it is at this point), I doubt we will see the requirement to wear masks on planes reinstated.

“While many travelers and airline employees alike are cheering this decision, there are also some who are unhappy, generally due to health concerns. People whose immune systems are compromised, for example, have said they feel very anxious about being around so many other people in the confined space of an aircraft cabin,” he said.

David Slotnick, senior aviation business reporter at The Points Guy, was realistic. “For all intents and purposes, the mask mandate is over. The Biden Administration can absolutely appeal the ruling and says it’s weighing options, but unless there’s a massive surge in cases and hospitalizations or a similarly dire situation, it seems that reinstituting the mandate would be politically unpopular for the administration. It’s kind of a Pandora’s box—with the mandate lifted, reinstituting it would be incredibly difficult.

“For now, the requirement for travelers flying in from overseas to test within a day of travel is still in effect, but it’s likely that the White House will come under pressure from travelers, airlines, and the rest of the travel industry to lift that,” he predicted.

Travel blogger and pundit, John Di Scala (JohnnyJet.com), says that the health experts he follows believes the unmasking is “a little bit premature as they’re waiting to see if the latest uptick of cases result in a surge of hospitalizations. So far it hasn’t, so I think the mandate was going to end on May 3 anyway.”

The frequent traveler says that he will wear a mask on crowded flights or if it seems as if his seatmate is “under the weather.”

“But planes are safer than most indoor spaces thanks to their air flow and HEPA filters,” says DiScala. “The good news about the mask mandate ending is, I think, the amount of unruly passengers will go down as most of them were [fighting] over wearing masks.”