On April 18, a judge in Florida eliminated the Federal mask mandate on airplanes. Within a few hours, all major U.S. Airlines dropped their requirement, some in mid-flight. There were videos posted everywhere of crews and passengers cheering, however not everyone was happy. Some thought this was too early, and others who just feel uncomfortable are undoubtedly re-thinking their travel as a result. But many now will choose to travel too, as this mandate was seen as one of the things still holding back a full return to travel normalcy.
When things change, it takes some time for people to react. When the mandate first came into effect, there were plenty of people who didn’t understand that they needed to wear one and this caused some friction. The removal came swiftly and unexpectedly to most, and I was scheduled to fly the day after most airlines removed the requirement. I flew again a few days later, so over four flights I saw both passenger and crew reactions to this change in the first week of this “no mask mandate” new world. Here is what I learned:
Regional Differences Not Surprising
My first flight was a roundtrip between Washington, DC and Boston on JetBlue. This was one day after the mandate was lifted, so when I entered the airport and saw almost everyone wearing a mask I wasn’t completely surprised. The DC area has been mask-obcessed since the beginning of the pandemic, to the point of being shamed if you don’t wear a mask even when not required. On the flight itself, about 70% of the customers wore masks, including the person sitting next to me. I chose to wear a mask in the airport and on the airplane. In Boston, I saw a similar scene both at the airport and on the return flight. I chalked this up to both the blue-state areas and also to the recency of the mask mandate removal.
A few days later, I flew roundtrip between Washington, DC and Dallas, TX. In Washington, the airport looked the same as my earlier trip, but I noticed boarding the flight on American Airlines that far fewer passengers were choosing to wear a mask. I wore a mask on this trip too, not because I felt I must but in part because I wanted to see if anyone would comment or decide to “remind me” that I didn’t need it. When I got off the plane into the DFW airport, almost no one was wearing a mask in a very crowded terminal building. I then realized that I was in Texas, and so wasn’t surprised. Going back to DC, the same paucity of masks were on the airplane but in the DCA airport, people were still largely masked up.
Announcements Urging Respect For All
On both sets of flights, announcements were made during boarding and after take-off regarding the masks. Customers were told that masks were not necessary and anyone wearing one was welcome to remove it. But the flight attendants also suggested “having respect” for everyone’s choice in this matter. They reminded those wearing masks to remove them before putting on the oxygen mask in the event of an emergency.
On both airlines, the annoucements were thoughtful, non-defensive, and non-critical of any individual belief. While I couldn’t see the whole plane of course, I saw no one put on or remove a mask following the announcements. It seemed as if everyone had made their decision, but some at least, myself included, appreciated the tone in which the announcements were made giving people the freedom to choose.
Ten Flight Attendants Were All Supportive
Sara Nelson, the leader of the nation’s largest flight attendant union, was vocal in pushing for mask mandates to protect crews. In the immediate aftermath of the judge’s ruling, she cautioned “patience” as both airlines and people would be figuring out what this all meant. That was good advice and based on my non-random sample of flights, people got it.
I spoke with all 10 flight attendants on my four flights — four from JetBlue and six from American — and everyone said that they were happy that the mandate was removed. Seven of the 10 were wearing a mask when they told me this. One summed it up nicely, stating that no mask mandate “lowers the volume on the plane a lot.” It’s clear that many flight attendants did not like being the mask police but were forced into that position. The well-reported spike in on-aircraft violence and incidents was largely driven by disputes regarding mask wearing. Ten flight attendants do not make a valid sample but I was surprised at the unanimity of their answers when I asked, “How do you feel about the mask mandate going away?” Over the next few months it will be interesting to see if the in-flight incident rate drops to pre-pandemic levels.
Mask Wearing Likely To Wane, But Not Disappear On Planes
One thing the pandemic has done is to make mask-wearing more common. Anyone who has traveled in parts of the world that have worn masks in crowded spaces long before this pandemic likely just accepted that it was a cultural or environmental thing. It’s possible that this has permeated our culture to some extent among at least some people. We saw our neighbor wearing a mask while doing some yard work, and when we asked why she told us that the mask made her seasonal allergies less annoying. As a result, I expect the incidence of on-board mask wearing to decrease over time but not go away completely. There are people who will choose to wear a mask when prior to the pandemic they would not have, in part because of how common they have become. While I am happy to not wear a mask in most settings, I still am likely to wear one in very crowded spaces and/or if I am feeling under the weather. This just makes sense to me, and has absolutely no political connotation to it. It may just be part of a new normal where people make smart choices about themselves and their relationship to others.