The Transportation Security Administration is scheduled to rescind the Federal mask mandate for airline travel on March 18, but should it?
As COVID-10 cases rapidly decline, states, businesses and organizations across the country are eliminating mask mandates, there’s also a lot of support for ending the in flight mask mandate.
However, the federal government regulates air travel, and so the mask requirements on airplanes have remained in place.
Shortly after taking office last year, Pres. Joe Biden signed an executive order “requiring travelers to wear face masks when they are in airports, bus and rail stations, as well as while on passenger aircraft, public transportation, passenger railroads, and over-the-road buses operating on scheduled fixed-routes.” With resurgent waves of the virus spreading across the country, the mandate has been extended twice.
Despite fines for those who don’t comply, there has been a lot of opposition to the policy. Disagreements over masks and the refusal of some passengers to wear them have led to frequent shouting matches, fights and other problems with unruly passengers during the pandemic. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration received nearly 400 reports of unruly passengers, including 255 reports of passengers refusing to comply with a federal mandate that they wear masks on planes.
In opposition to lifting the band is the Association of Flight Attendants- C.W.A. They say lifting the mask requirement would endager medically vulnerable travelers and passengers under five, who have not been approved by federal health authorities to get the vaccine.
“It’s also critical that we maintain passenger confidence in the safety of air travel,” the union, which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, said in its statement.
The Case for and Against Masks on Flights
At a Senate hearing in December, some airline executives questioned the efficacy of masks on planes. Citing high-quality filtration systems aboard planes, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly stated that “masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment.”
He and other airline executives say mask-wearing on planes is unnecessary because advanced air filtration systems sufficiently reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
THE FACTS: While it’s true that the common air filtration and distribution systems used in modern aircraft are highly effective at reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission among passengers, According to experts, masks add another layer of protection for air travelers, experts told The Associated Press.
While HEPA filtration systems are highly effective at reducing the transmission of viruses, they do not completely eliminate risk aboard flights, according to Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech.
“The issue is that they only work on the air as it passes through the filter,” she said in an email. “If you are sitting near someone who is releasing lots of viruses into the air, you could end up inhaling them before they have had a chance to pass through the filtration system.”
Marr said it takes a few minutes for air to completely pass through the filtration system. She said requiring everyone to wear a mask reduces the amount of virus an infected individual can release into the air, and helps reduce the amount of virus someone wearing a mask might breathe in.
Leonard J. Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University, agreed.
“Yes, the ventilation system on airplanes are incredible. They’re comparable with what you might find in an operating room,” he said. But “it is the multiple layers, it’s not one thing alone.”
Marcus said that masks are particularly important when people are boarding and exiting airplanes or moving around the aircraft cabin. Rising COVID-19 cases and the threat posed by the omicron variant also make mask-wearing on planes essential, he said.
“People are moving about, people are turning to speak to someone, people are sometimes lifting up their mask to drink,” said Marcus, whose initiative published a report in October that supported a “layered” approach to lowering risk. “If everyone is wearing the mask, there’s going to be much less transmission of the disease.”