Few people wearing masks on planes just weeks after mandate removed
In mid-April, a Florida judge effectively canceled the federal mandate wear masks on planes. Almost immediately, all airlines dropped this requirement. In the first week or so, 50-75% of customers were still wearing masks, even though airlines made it clear in their announcements that they were not required. This has led some, including me, to think it might be that way for a while, as many people, making their own choice, would still choose to mask up on an airplane.
Well, now only six weeks after the mandate was removed, it’s hard to find many masks on planes, at least based on my latest flight sampling. Even in mask-accepting cities like Washington and Boston, masks have almost disappeared on planes and in airports. This has some interesting implications:
Airlines could be blamed if further hikes occur
Despite the fact that planes have always provided a lower virus transmission rate that many other places where people congregate, the closeness of people and the inability to walk away always makes people nervous about them. Fortunately, airplanes have never been identified as places where many people have caught Covid. Airports always seemed a bit riskier, given that the airflow and filtering isn’t the same as inside the plane itself.
If a further rise in the number of cases occurs, or even worse a rise associated with more hospitalizations or deaths, people will look for easy excuses. The availability bias tells us that some will see the removal of the airline’s mask mandate as the crack that broke the dam. Even though science won’t support this, it’s an easy thing to point out and one that many people will easily remember. The US airline industry and its lobby groups should prepare for this if it happens.
Flight attendants are largely satisfied with not monitoring masks
I’ve taken 10 flights since the warrant was lifted, and six since I first wrote about the effects of this. All six were in the past month, and again, I spoke to every flight attendant on every flight. These included flights on Delta, American and JetBlue. As I found on my first few flights, there was universal support for removing the mandate from this non-random sample.
Flight attendants just didn’t like being masked police. They were forced into this role because of their mandate, and the result was a significant increase in violence on board. The job of a flight attendant is stressful enough and comes with significant responsibilities. This additional disciplinary function has therefore led some to rethink their career choice. While union leaders may still point to the health and safety benefits of masking on board, most flight attendants would prefer things as they are now.
The reintroduction of a mandate will meet significant resistance
Reintroducing a federal mandate would come with a lot of noise and likely faster legal action to fight it. Even though not everyone makes the right personal decisions, there is a cultural aversion to being told what to do. This is why the mandate was never popular once the government did it, even though individual airline mandates, prior to the federal mandate, did not meet with much resistance. People seemed to say it was okay for private companies to make rules they thought were fair, especially because they could choose not to fly an airline with a warrant if they wanted to.
If the CDC or another government agency feels compelled to reintroduce a travel mask mandate, they could work better with industry to show why it likely has more costs than benefits. It is very possible that it is good policy to wear masks in large gatherings, enclosed spaces, etc., but not on planes.
No masks on planes doesn’t mean no masks anywhere
I have noticed that the filing of the mask worn on planes has not been matched by the same in other places, including grocery stores, churches and public performances. Even when not required, approximately 30% of people still choose to wear masks in these settings based on what I have seen in the Washington, DC area.
It makes sense to me. As each person makes decisions that are safe for them, I can see why they would be smarter about when and where to wear a mask. My wife had her antibodies tested during a recent physical, and her doctor said the test measured at a certain level of antibody and she had more than that amount. In other words, her doctor said she couldn’t be more protected, even though she never had Covid. Her doctor speculated that her body was reacting aggressively to the multiple injections and boosters she had taken. As more people discover their own antibody support, this may also indicate how important they consider wearing a mask to be.
Masks are likely to be common on longer international flights
For one thing, wearing a mask for more than eight hours is one of the things that has held back the full return of international travel. On the other hand, the longer the flight, the more people may feel the risk of being so close to others. Add to that the varying and sometimes inconsistent mask requirements across countries, and it seems likely that more people on long international flights will continue to wear a mask on board.
I will test this theory later this month when I make my first international trip since March 2020. I am flying from New York to London, and while few, if any, wear a mask on my connecting flight from the airport DCA, I expect that, both in the departure lounge and on the plane, between 25% and 50% of passengers will at least start the flight with a mask. This aligns with my general view of how society is moving towards this virus and an endemic state, as opposed to pandemic. People will, for the most part, make decisions that make sense for their own health.