The US Federal airline mask mandate, increasingly unpopular among both passengers and crew, has been extended once again, this time into May. The Centers for Disease Control attributes the latest extension of the mandate to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, along with a new omicron subvariant, BA.2.
Surprisingly enough, the decision to extend the mask mandate yet again was not greeted with universal acclaim. “It’s time to let the masks go and let people decide,” Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Airlines, said in an NBC News soundbite.
Nick Calio, President, and CEO of airline industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A) urged the CDC to allow the federal mask mandate to expire. Calio claimed that following the science shows that the masking requirement has outlived its usefulness. “The reality is the science and the data says you’re safer on an airplane than you are anywhere else,” Calio told NBC News, noting research that shows air filtration systems on airplanes are highly protective against the virus.
The government says the mask mandate extension will give public health leaders the time to determine the potential impact of the new COVID trends. “It isn’t like things are static. Things are moving, we’re seeing an increase throughout the country,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President of United States.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “So what they’re trying to do is give a little bit more time to assess its potential impact the rise of the cases had on severe disease, including hospitalization and deaths and healthcare system capacity.”
The FAA’s airline mask mandate, now moving into its 15th month, had been set to expire on April 18. Although nearly every U.S. state dropped mask mandates around the time of the Super Bowl two months ago, the latest two-week extension will continue the mask requirement on US domestic flights through May 3. Press secretary Psaki said, “at the end of that two weeks they can determine what’s next after that.”
Airline representatives pointed out the pointlessness of continuing a mask mandate for passengers flying from one place with no mask mandate to another that also does not mandate masks. “It makes no sense to require masks on a plane when masks are not recommended in places like restaurants, bars or crowded sports facilities,” said A4A CEO Calio in a letter sent to health officials.
Airlines and passengers alike are frustrated at the continuing mandate as so few states and municipalities now enforce one. The mask mandate has also been a flashpoint for violent confrontations aboard commercial aircraft.
Last year was the most violent year on record in terms of unruly passenger incidents, with 5,981 reports of unruly passengers logged by the FAA for 2021. CNN noted, “Of those, 4,290 — nearly 72% — were mask-related incidents.” More than 1100 unruly passenger episodes have been reported so far in 2022, with more than half for mask violations.
Many onboard disputes over masks also appear alcohol related. Nonetheless, American Airlines, the last major US airline not serving alcohol in coach, still plans to bring back booze on April 18, despite the unexpected continuation of the mask mandate.
The airline industry would also like to do away with pre-departure testing of passengers bound for the U.S. Airlines for America President Calio said such testing is no longer an effective way to protect the U.S from COVID-19. He noted, “This requirement provides little health benefit, yet discourages travel by imposing an additional cost, as well as a fear of being stranded overseas.”
Like the mask mandate, pre-departure testing is inconsistently applied. Calio said, “Since the federal government does not require negative tests for entry at our land-border ports of entry with Canada and Mexico, it no longer is logical to keep a pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirement in place for inbound international air travelers to the United States.”
An end to pre-departure testing and the mask mandate might boost to the airline industry as it heads into its most lucrative travel season. But when and if such a return to normalcy might occur remains up in the air.