For two years, masked faces at airports and on planes have been a lingering reminder of the grip the coronavirus has had on air travel. The end of the mask mandate on airplanes and other means of transport this week marked the latest breakthrough in the airline industry’s efforts to get back to normal.
Passengers and flight crews greeted a federal judge’s ruling against the warrant on Monday with a mixture of joy, relief and alarm. For some, the change has introduced new stress as the coronavirus continues to circulate and kill people. But for many others, it removed a major source of tension and discomfort.
For flight attendants, pilots and others in the industry, the mask mandate had become a source of frustration even as they recognized it protected them during their prolonged exposure to strangers. Flight crews had to apply proper face coverings – dangerous work in these polarizing times. Some passengers refused to comply and became belligerent; in extreme cases, they even punched, kicked and bloodied flight attendants.
“They don’t like being policemen on planes,” said David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways and now chief executive of a new company, Breeze Airways. “It’s not something they signed up for, and I think it creates more of a stir with customers.”
The Federal Aviation Administration launched nearly 1,100 investigations into passenger misconduct last year, compared to an average of 140 per year over the previous decade. The agency has opened 345 investigations so far this year.
Unions representing flight attendants and pilots have called on federal agencies to do more to penalize passengers who are violent or threaten violence. Some federal lawmakers have proposed tougher penalties for those convicted of assaulting flight crews and placed those people on a no-fly list, but the prospects for the legislation are unclear in a tightly-knit Congress. Split. Some Republicans have said they oppose putting people on a no-fly list.
Lifting the mask requirement can help defuse some tensions, and some attendants said it would give crew members back an important tool to defuse conflict: their faces.
“Even just a smile, even just to say ‘Good morning’, ‘Good afternoon’, ‘Welcome aboard’ – I hope this will also help reduce tension on board,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of the Local 556 of the Union of Transport Workers. , representing approximately 17,000 Southwest Airlines flight attendants. “It seems like a small thing, but it’s actually something we use a lot.”
Airlines, which have spent months demanding an end to the mask requirement, were quick to drop enforcement of the rule on Monday – some crews even announced during flights that passengers were free to take off their mask. The industry is clearly hoping that the change will benefit it by allowing it to once again focus on selling high-end services to customers.
In another sign of a return to a more pre-pandemic stance, American Airlines became the latest major carrier to restart liquor sales on Monday. He had announced the decision last month, after suspending them at the start of the pandemic.
Airlines are already enjoying a robust rebound that has weathered a spike in coronavirus infections caused by the Omicron variant and rising fares, which were largely driven by an increase in the cost of jet fuel due to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Last week, Delta Air Lines announced that March was its best sales month yet. Industry-wide, domestic flight fares have risen 40% this year, from $235 to $330 for an average round-trip domestic flight, according to Hopper, an airfare tracker app. Hopper said he detected no significant change in people searching for flights on Tuesday.
“I don’t think ending the mask requirement will have a measurable effect on passenger numbers,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel marketing research firm. “Higher airfares and a lack of seats at affordable fares will likely be more of a deterrent to people traveling this summer.”
But airline executives and groups representing the hospitality industry hope the end of the mask mandate will lead to other changes that could increase demand for tickets. They are, for example, also pushing the Biden administration to lift the requirement that travelers seeking to come to the United States from another country obtain a negative coronavirus test the day before or the day of their flight. The requirement applies to US citizens and people who have been vaccinated against the virus.
“This requirement offers few health benefits, but discourages travel by imposing an additional cost, as well as the fear of being stranded abroad,” said Nicholas E. Calio, president of Airlines for America, a professional association, in a letter last week. to federal officials.
Government and airline officials in other countries are not removing pandemic restrictions at the same pace. Canadian officials said Tuesday the country would maintain its mask requirements for planes. Some international airlines, including Lufthansa and Air France, have adhered to their mask mandates for flights to or from the United States, while others, such as British Airways, have said they will relax their rules when they would fly into cities and countries where masks were not required. .
The push for a quick return to normalcy in the United States has puzzled some people. Many public health experts have said removing the mask requirement would unnecessarily increase people’s exposure to the virus.
“We’re at a vulnerable point where a bigger surge could start or it could stabilize,” said Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease researcher at Stanford University, echoing the point that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did when extending the mask mandate until May 3. “During the first push of Omicron, we mainly saw many immunocompromised patients in the hospital who needed monitoring and medication to slow the progression of the disease. We are now shifting the burden of protecting themselves to them. »
Airplanes have high-quality filtration systems that often circulate air, said David Freedman, professor and president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. But there are times when masking is especially helpful, including at the airport, on the airlift, and on the plane before the engines are running and sucking cool air into the cabin.
“Air travel is a continuum of activity – it’s not just about sitting in your seat on the plane,” Dr Freedman said, adding that he plans to continue wearing an N95 mask. .
Dr. Mimi Emig, a retired infectious disease physician from Michigan who is considered at high risk for Covid-19, said she is now considering canceling a flight to Utah to visit her daughter.
“I feel very nervous,” Dr. Emig said. She worries about how often airplane filters are changed. She is also aware that if an infected passenger occupies a seat near her, the advanced circulation system will not help.
“The United States is done with Covid, but Covid is not done with us,” she said.
New known cases of coronavirus in the United States have started to increase again in recent days. The daily average on Monday was more than 39,000 new cases, a 43% increase from two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database.
Although the figure remains well below the peak of the winter surge caused by the Omicron variant, experts believe that new cases are increasingly underestimated with the rise in home testing. Also, many people vaccinated and given booster shots did not become seriously ill after getting Omicron.
Although masks are most effective when everyone wears one, experts say individuals can still benefit from being the only person in a crowd wearing one.
Adel Hassan and Elizabeth Goodridge contributed report.