Are we really ready for the airline mask mandate to expire?

Woman sitting on a plane blowing her nose. Her protective face mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19...
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The airline mask mandate could expire as soon as March 18

The federal mandate that requires people to wear masks in airports and on flights is set to expire on March 18. Frankly, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to go maskless in a flying orgy of germs, but we’ve all seen the absurd antics of unmasked crusaders on airplanes. Airline attendants are concerned that lifting the mask mandate will endanger the most vulnerable passengers.

For context, the federal government created the mask mandate in January 2021. It was set to expire in May 2021, but has been extended twice since. The federal ruling makes it illegal for anyone to go maskless through the airline transportation system and gives the T.S.A. the authority to impose fines on people who refuse to comply. Sure, individual airlines can set their own rules about these things if the government chooses to let the rule expire — but that puts those airlines in the position of making a very politically charged decision.

It seems unwise and unfair to force each airline to make their own masking rules — as they did before the mandate — and then for already overworked flight attendants to have to defend those rules without T.S.A. support. So, it’s understandable that the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union is expecting the federal mandate to be extended.

“We have every expectation that the mask mandate will be extended for the near term. The conditions in aviation are the same. Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine,” a representative for the union told Bloomberg. Indeed, unvaccinated children would be put at needless risk if the mask mandate ends — and so would all medically vulnerable people.

Unfortunately, while the unions that represent flight attendants all seem to be in support of the mandate, some airline executives have a more cavalier attitude. “The case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Gay Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines said at a senate hearing in December — two days before he tested positive for COVID. A few days after the hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci publicly urged people to wear masks during travel, and all the credible research still shows that doing so is an extremely effective way to reduce your risk of contracting COVID while flying.

Yes, COVID cases are currently declining in the U.S., but don’t we want to keep it that way? I don’t know about you, but I am not anxious to see a surge of a new deadly subvariant because some anti-masker can’t be bothered to cover his mouth. I also don’t want to have any part of the mayhem that could ensue if airlines are forced to make rules that the federal government won’t back up.