JK everyone, it’s totally fine if you were a maskless asshole on a flight

After a federal judge struck down the CDC’s mask mandate, Delta and other airlines are rushing to reinstate previously banned passengers.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 19: A Delta Airlines worker wears a mask while waiting for custome...
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If there’s one thing people want when it comes to air travel, it’s ... well, it’s to get where they’re going, safely and on time. But if there’s a second thing people want when it comes to air travel, it’s for airline companies to at least pretend like they care about their passengers as human beings and not herded cattle. In fact, for an industry seemingly predicated on consistency, the only reliable thing about most airlines is that they will screw you over in service of their bottom line without batting an eyelash, every single time. Because, ultimately, they can.

Take, for instance, the whiplash-inducing about-face spurred by a federal judge’s decision this week to nix the CDC’s mask mandate on planes and other forms of public transportation. Not only were travelers rope-a-doped into buying tickets under the assumption of one level of safety, only to find themselves stuck, mid-flight, as flight crews gleefully encouraged passengers to unmask, but now thousands of passengers formerly under a permanent ban for breaking the once-ironclad masking rules are being welcomed back with open arms — in exchange for their open wallets.

“With masks now optional, Delta will restore flight privileges for customers on the mask non-compliance no-fly list only after each case is reviewed and each customer demonstrates an understanding of their expected behavior when flying with us,” a spokesperson for Delta said, shortly after Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Florida issued her tortured legal ruling that nullified mandatory masking on flights, in airports, and on other modes of public transportation.

Delta is estimated to have banned approximately 2,000 people for non-compliance with the former mask mandate. United Airlines and Alaska Air are also reportedly reviewing their lists of passengers banned under the previous masking mandate, with a spokesperson for United telling CBS News that it would be looking at restoring flying privileges on a “case by case basis.”

Here we have a fairly straightforward dynamic: A legitimate consequence for breaking a simple and necessary rule in the midst of a public health crisis is now being rescinded simply because that rule is (currently) no longer applicable. The message being sent here is essentially that willful disobedience of the laws of air travel is acceptable, if only you wait long enough. And complicating matters further is the fact that the Justice Department now plans to appeal Mizelle’s ruling, meaning it’s entirely possible that the industry-wide mask mandate will be reinstated at some point in the not too distant future. At that point, will Delta and the other airlines move their once-banned customers back to the no-fly list?

Also, let’s not forget that the coronavirus pandemic is very much still happening.

Airlines love to talk about flying the friendly skies and treating their passengers like precious cargo. But at the end of the day, decisions like this only reinforce a starker truth: So long as they think they can get away with it, the titans of airline industry will treat rules as capricious suggestions to inform — but in no way dictate — their quickest path to profit.