When will airlines end the mask requirements?
If you haven't flown since the pandemic took hold, expect a radically different inflight experience when you're ready to travel again.
On some carriers, snacks and beverage service has been replaced with an individually-wrapped bag with some goodies, including hand sanitizer. Boarding and deplaning procedures have changed, too. In addition, you may find that the middle seat is purposely left open to allow for more distancing.
But perhaps the most noticeable change is that you — and everyone else around you — will be required to wear a face covering. That's because every major U.S. airline (and most worldwide) now requires each passenger to wear a mask during travel.
And now that we're a few months into the pandemic, some people are wondering how long the mask requirement will be around.
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Why we need to wear masks in the first place
Wearing a mask has been shown to be the one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. When we're in tight, indoor spaces, masks help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling far from our nose and mouth, minimizing the chance that someone else picks up a possible infection.
Masks don't just help others though. The wearer also gets the benefit of an added layer of protection from the outside environment. Though airplanes have hospital-grade HEPA filters, masks are an important — and essential — defense against the transmission of the virus. Travel inherently involves spending time in close quarters — security lines, airplanes, public restrooms and more — so the mask is an essential component to the experience during a pandemic.
To promote public health, airlines and hotels have realized that it's the best way to keep everyone safe. These travel providers don't want others to get sick on their aircraft or in their hotels, nor do they want their staff to contract the virus.
Related: Delta has banned more than 100 passengers for not wearing a mask
So with that in mind, when will we return to traveling sans masks?
Masks are here for a while
First things first: No one has an exact answer yet. We're still just months into the pandemic, and we have a lot more to learn about the virus from the scientists studying its transmission.
And though there's a clear upside to a federal mask mandate, the government has indicated that it wants to sit this one out. So the decision to remove the mask requirement likely won't be uniform across the entire industry.
As Henry Harteveldt, president at Atmosphere Research Group, told TPG: "Without mandates from an organization like the U.N. or government-level agencies, airlines are forced to make individual decisions. That's not really fair to the airline, since it puts everyone in a really uncomfortable situation."
Related: Delta tightens its mask policy even further with new exclusions
Nonetheless, the airlines are going to need to make a decision at some point. As such, Harteveldt continued by explaining that "as long as airlines perceive there to be a need to wear masks, they'll continue to require it."
And though some of the vaccine trials look promising, Harteveldt doesn't think that the introduction of one will be enough to remove the mask mandate. "The mask requirement will likely last until an organization like the CDC or WHO states that the vaccine has been working as we hope it will and enough people are inoculated to no longer need the masks," he said.
We don't know exactly when we'll get to that point of mass inoculation, but Harteveldt has a theory for how the requirement will be phased out. In his mind, the requirement will be removed "airline by airline, based on their route network and based on the status of COVID-19 in that part of the world."
Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats and requiring masks?
This means that a carrier that exclusively operates flights within a certain region may be able to remove the requirement before a larger, global carrier. This is what he terms the "lower common denominator approach." If an airline flies even just one route to an area where COVID-19 is still rampant, that carrier will likely keep the mask requirement for the entire network.
Additionally, the decision to keep the requirement could come down to an airline's workforce. Some of the pilot or flight attendant unions might advocate for face coverings even after the CDC says we no longer need to wear masks. And, according to Harteveldt, those unions typically have a lot of sway in an airline's decision.
However, what's most concerning to Harteveldt about the removal of the mask requirement is the possibility of airlines competing on onboard health.
Related: American Airlines, Southwest now overtake Delta for the strictest mask policy in the US
"If we get to a point where airline A feels like it needs to continue masks for whatever reason, but airline B says we don’t need to do that anymore, and you start to see airline compete on being a mask-free airline, this really concerns me. Unfortunately, given the political landscape, that could be a part of future air travel reality," Harteveldt said.
He acknowledged that even when the requirement goes away, more people will be wearing masks voluntarily than before the pandemic began. In his mind, until there’s more confidence in the public health landscape, masks are here to stay.
And how long that'll be exactly isn't clear yet — not to Harteveldt nor to the scientists who are actively studying the virus.