Update: a Federal Court in the USA has overturned the Transportation Mask Mandate and masks are now optional on US domestic flights and on most international flights.
If you came here looking for a fight, or an ultra-polarized take on mask wearing, you’re in the wrong place. Go home. If you’re already home, carry on.
This is not a take on the rights and wrongs of why we must still collectively wear masks on planes, despite them being dropped from other indoor places where people gather in air conditions far inferior to the cabin air environment on planes.
This is simply an explainer, for those who love masks or loathe them, of why they are still en-force (for better and worse), why they still will be for a while, and why it’s best to just move on, rather than getting yourself kicked off a flight and banned for making some grandiose political stand.
In the most basic terms, masks are still required on planes because governments are buying time to find better solutions. Even if they do, they may stay forever. As strange as it may sound, “buying time” is actually a very sound approach.
Cabin Air Is Up to 15X Safer Than Other Indoor Environments
According to studies conducted by the US Department of Defense, weighing the risks of moving troops in planes versus other modes of transport, cabin air on planes is up to 15X safer than other indoor air environments, like those found in pubs, restaurants, clubs or shops. It’s even up to 5X safer than hospital air.
By that sheer fact, an argument could be made that flights might be the only place where masks aren’t as necessary, because air blows directly down, and is refreshed and cleaned every 90 seconds by HEPA filters, in ways which keeps bad particles from spreading as easily as they do elsewhere.
Very few other indoor spaces on earth are as secure, in that sense.
But that approach isn’t entirely accurate, because it fails to account for important distinctions between the requirements currently in place for people traveling versus people entering a local bar.
With air travel, restrictions are still so varied. Entirely different experiences are found depending whether it’s a domestic trip, or international, vaccinated and tested or not vaccinated and not tested. Those details are still being ironed out.
Plus, as the world gets back on its feet, and vaccines are proving to do their jobs of keeping most people from the worst outcomes, but not necessarily from getting sick, why add more jeopardy and new virus concerns as flu season returns?
Domestic VS International
For domestic travel in places where robust domestic travel markets exist, such as the USA, Europe and South America, vaccination is not a requirement of flight. Neither is a pre-flight test currently — with very few exceptions.
You can board a flight in the USA to another destination in the USA without any testing or vaccination (with the exception of Hawaii). Having mask-less people who may be vulnerable, or who may be sick is not a practical measure at this point in time.
Certainly not in the minds of risk averse government officials eager to reboot their economies and get people consistently back to school and work.
International travel is a very different beast, but even then it’s also inconsistent, in a way which makes blanket restrictions, like masks, arguably easier to manage.
Some countries gladly welcome fully-vaccinated visitors without testing, yet others have no testing or vaccination requirement at all. There’s no standardization of what’s required and that makes it difficult for any government to say “sure, take the masks off” for everyone. If rules aren’t for everyone, people find them confusing.
It’s easier to just say “they’re on for everyone”, even for flights where vaccination and proof of a negative test required before flight, make these flights among the most epidemiologically secure places on earth.
President Biden To Layout New Travel Framework
President Biden, in announcing plans to drop travel bans in place on visitors from the EU, UK and many others, noted that the dropped bans would be part of a wider “new system” for travel.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, and members of the Biden Administration, proof of vaccination is being mulled as a requirement for not just international but domestic air travel.
Whether you entirely agree or disagree with this potential approach, it would be a meaningful step in making a case to drop mask wearing from flights.
If everyone onboard is vaccinated and worst case outcomes would be minimized, a much better argument against the need to wear masks could be leveled, since travel policies would be exactly in in line with the way cities now require proof of vaccination to enter crowded bars or sporting events.
Surely, at that point, you couldn’t say that if 1,000 vaccinated people could “rage” without a mask, shoulder to shoulder while sweating it out in poorly ventilated spaces, fully vaccinated people in air up to 15X safer should be able to take their masks off too.
We’re Not There Yet
And that’s the point: we’re not there yet, in terms of global standards, effective policy and vaccination rates. Caution will keep governments from doing anything which could potentially disrupt the resumption of school and work until we are.
Unfortunately, the last unvaccinated third of people is proving very difficult to convince to get vaccinated. It’s a phenomenon not unique to the USA, and until more people are no longer of risk to themselves or others, any changes will move very slowly.
For some, too slow, for others, there’s no such thing as too slow. Many people, including the head of the AFA, the United States’ leading flight attendant union, want masks to stay forever. The same person also wants all alcohol banned from all planes, so make of that what you will.
One thing is almost sure to be true, thankfully. Even if masks are eventually dropped as a requirement, people will still have a choice to wear one, if they so wish.
When Will We Stop Wearing Masks On Flights?
Just two weeks ago we marked the 20th anniversary of the horrors of 9/11.
Many things we do in daily life now were never done before that day. Nearly everything in the travel experience changed after that day, and may never change back, whether it should or not.
Currently, the mask mandate in the United States has been extended to January 18th, 2021. Most countries have followed US advice on the matter. At this point, it’s entirely possible that it could be dropped from that date forward, but also entirely possible that it won’t.
Technology systems to vet vaccination status, or to prove a negative test are still a long way from where they should be — and that doesn’t change quick.y
Basically, even if the government came up with a great plan which allowed masks to be dropped on planes today, it would still take months to setup a framework of security or protocols to put it into place without making travel a total nightmare.
Doing that not only in one country, but with a system of trust across multiple countries makes it even more difficult. Until agreements or government laws are enacted on the requirements travelers will need for flights going forward, masks are very likely to stay.
Even then, like some of the post 9/11 security theatre, masks may still stay. With flu season quickly approaching, there’s more than reasons than just covid-19 to wear a mask on a plane for the next few months. Plus, the fines, and proposals for universal passenger bans for non-compliance with mask rules.