The End of Airline Mask Mandates

19 April 2022

Mask mandates have been an inescapable part of air travel for more than two years. A recent study of Machinist Union members in commercial aviation suggests that most airline workers are ready for them to end.

A recent study of Machinists Union views on mask mandates within the airline industry found that most union members are ready to ditch mask mandates. 69% of participants said Federal mask mandates at airports should be lifted “as soon as possible,” with another 6% saying that they should be allowed to expire. Together, 75% of union members participating in the study favored lifting mask mandates. Only 11% thought that Federal authorities should extend mandates for airports. Union members were not anti-mask, however. 29% of respondents said they planned to continue wearing a mask at least part of the time, regardless of whether or not they were mandated. 

The study comes as a federal judge struck down Federal mandates on Monday, citing administrative errors and claiming that the Centers for Disease Control lacked authority to implement such requirements. The rules have been in place since April of 2020, when the CDC first began recommending them, and have been repeatedly extended. Masking rules had been set to expire on April 18 but were extended to May 3. The court ruling means that the mandates will expire at once. International travelers will still need to follow regulations adopted by nations that continue to require masking. 

In the wake of the ruling, all major airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that they would no longer enforce mask rules. Instead, masks will become optional for those who want to wear them for safety reasons. 

“While this means that you are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – we ask that you respect the decision of those employees or customers who choose to do so, as the CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” United Airlines said in a statement to employees. 

Federal mask mandates have been a sharp trigger point for airline passengers since they were implemented in April of 2020. More than 7,000 attacks on airline workers have been reported since the pandemic began, the vast majority occurring as gate agents and flight crews attempted to enforce masking rules. In a typical year, airlines would only report about 150 such attacks. More than 3,000 attacks have been reported in 2021, a year that is only in its fourth month. 

The Biden Administration has not immediately announced whether or not it will appeal the decision but continues to recommend that passengers wear masks while traveling. The Administration may both allow the mandates to end while at the same time appealing the ruling. 

The decision, handed down by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, includes a few perplexing statements. While a popular decision among passengers and unionized airline workers, the ruling may nevertheless invite scrutiny. (The decision can be read here.)

In her ruling, Judge Mizelle claims that the Federal governments’ authority to control infectious diseases is limited to “measures that clean something,” since they often use the word “sanitation” in describing the responsibilities of state and local governments. 

“At most,” she wrote of masking, “it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.” If Congress had intended to use the word “sanitation” as the defendants defined the term, she wrote, the government would gain the power to force people to start “coughing into elbows” and take daily multivitamins. “Wearing a mask means nothing,” she concluded.

She also found that the public was not granted sufficient opportunity to comment on the mandates and that they must be struck down in their entirety due to the difficulty in granting exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Judge Mizelle was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. 

The scope of the decision could potentially limit the ability of the CDC to combat viral outbreaks in the future if allowed to stand in its entirety. 

While the flying public and airline workers may prefer a more solid court ruling, the end of masking requirements seems to be a popular and welcome development. 

At least one airline, Alaska Airlines, warns that those passengers who attacked airline workers and other travelers after being told to mask up would still not be allowed back on planes. “Based on our reports, we will have some guests whose behavior was particularly egregious who will remain banned, even after the mask policy is rescinded,” the airline said in a statement released on Monday. 

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