a man wearing a face mask

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.

a man wearing a face mask

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?

a passport with a eagle on it

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.

a tall monument and a building

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.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Eventually, the airlines will ask for masks to be gone from planes. We aren’t there yet but soon. Most people are avoiding flying whenever possible for vacation or business. Long-term that is not healthy for airline profits. The more financially stable may hold on longer so that the financially weak airlines will go under. The airlines convinced the governments of the world in early 2020 that due to great air quality on planes that they should be allowed to keep flying passengers. Either the air is safe on the plane or it’s not. If it is not safe enough then they shouldn’t be allowing passengers to take off masks to eat or drink on the plane at all. If it’s not safe enough then they shouldn’t be allowed to transport passengers.

  2. With over 3 million flight miles under my belt, I did want to add an interesting perspective. While I don’t agree with wearing masks, my personal opinion, in almost every international flight, coming and going I usually ended up with a sinus infection of some type. After landing I would make my usual trip to the pharmacy, explain my plight, whether Beijing or Buenos Aires and beyond, get my antibiotics, and 5 days later back to normal. After flying to Italy for 32 days, nothing, no sinus infection. So maybe there is something to the mask policy. Again just personal opinion.

    1. john I completely feel your pain and it pains the heart when you get nervous about flying because of sinus problems but I found doing daily and after every long flight of sinus cleansing with a neti pot cleared it all up. and also ayr nasal gel/spray during flying

  3. US Population – 330,917,584 Million, Total Cases, 3,236,130, Total deaths 134,572 (All these are revised CDC data), Less than 1% of Americans have caught Covid. Survival Rate is 99.96% of US population.

    World Population ~ 7.8 Billion; Total Covid Cases worldwide: 12,946,731, total deaths 569,375. 0.17% of the world population has caught Covid, current survival rate is 99.99% of world population. Why are we continue to screw over the world over the flu? Insanity! It is not about a virus, it is ALL ABOUT CONTROL.

    1. I usually wouldn’t comment on this, but your figures are just entirely off. There’s been more than 4.55 million deaths to date. Madison Square Garden holds like 22 thousand.

      I’m pretty libertarian, but this is not a time for politics. It’s a time for science and reason, both of which are helping us get to times of greater freedom, again.

  4. When I travel between the US and the UK, both now highly vaccinated areas, I do not understand why I need to still wear a mask. When I leave the States, I need to demonstrate at check-in that I have been determined to be covid free, likewise on the return. What, pray tell, is going to happen on the eight hours flight that will cause me to be infected upon arrival? I am always also in business, which these days is generally quite empty, which makes it even more ridiculous.

    1. There’s been a number of examples of people testing negative on departure and positive on arrival.

      Considering women have given birth in hospitals with masks, I think most people can survive a few hours on a plane wearing a mask.

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