Why some travelers, including myself, don’t plan to stop wearing masks on planes anytime soon

Apr 20, 2022

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In the course of an afternoon into the late evening, masks are suddenly no longer required on public transit throughout the United States, including on airplanes, thanks to the White House temporarily dropping the previous federal mask mandate.

Around 1 p.m. yesterday, a federal judge in Florida voided the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandate. A few hours later, the Biden administration announced it would no longer direct the Transportation Security Administration to enforce the mandate at this time.

Airlines came next, with United and Alaska issuing updated policies first, followed by Delta, Southwest and American, all of which deemed masks optional moving forward.

While many people celebrated the idea of flying without a face mask for the first time since May 2020, some travelers aren’t quite celebrating just yet.

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In This Post

The timeline of face coverings on airplanes: Summer 2020 to now

Although the mask mandate did not take effect until February 2021, airlines began requiring them in 2020, with JetBlue leading the pack, and Delta and United following suit on May 4. American and Southwest were the next to require masks effective May 11, 2020.

On Monday, within hours of the news from Florida and then Washington, all of these airlines declared that inflight masks would become optional, with the rules for some flights changing via midair announcements, followed by passengers promptly removing their masks.

Read more: International travel with no restrictions: A country-by-country guide to where you can travel with no COVID-19 test required

The decision to wear a mask remains a choice

As of April 19, all major U.S. carriers have made one thing clear: While masks are no longer compulsory on board, employees and passengers alike can still wear them should they desire.

“As a result of this development, effective immediately, Southwest Employees and Customers will be able to choose whether they would like to wear a mask on flights, at domestic ​airports, and at some international locations,” Southwest said in a statement. “We encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing.”

In issuing individual statements, airlines across the board, including Southwest, United, American, Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian, have explicitly stated that passengers may continue to wear masks if they desire to do so.

“Safety is always our highest priority, so while we love to see your smiling faces in the airport and on board, we respect your decision to keep using this added layer of protection,” Alaska said in a press release. “Above all, we hope you’ll treat each other with kindness and respect throughout the travel journey and beyond. ”

(Screenshot from Alaska Airlines)

Delta for its part went a step further, adding context from their in-house medical expert about the benefits of masks for the wearer, even if no one else is.

“Delta employees and customers may continue wearing masks if they so choose,” the airline said in a statement. “Wearing a well-fitting mask – such as a KN95 – protects the wearer, even if others around them are not wearing masks, according to our Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting.”

Read more: US mask mandates are going away … what’s next?

Reasons people might keep their masks on

For starters, masks are ultimately designed to protect the wearer, which means certain high-risk individuals, such as the 7 million people in the U.S. considered to be immunocompromised, can take comfort in knowing they can still protect themselves by wearing a mask.

“We know that masks, worn correctly, with the right material, offer protection. It reduces the risks of viral particle transmissions,” said Dr. Jenny Yu, head of medical affairs at Healthline Media. “We shouldn’t take the all-or-none approach as there are still people who would benefit from the extra protection despite the numbers being low overall.”

Although that 7 million represents less than 3% of the total U.S. population, the decision of whether to wear a mask remains a constant consideration for this group — as well as others, such as individuals over age 65, pregnant women and children under age 5, the latter of which are not yet eligible to get vaccinated.

“Individuals should speak with their physicians to get the right advice for what should be the case for them,” said Yu. “While air filtration has a high turnover on planes, the higher-risk individuals should feel comfortable taking on the risk mitigation, should they choose, by wearing a mask still.”

As one of the estimated 54-129 million non-elderly adults in the U.S. with a preexisting condition and therefore more susceptible, I will continue to wear a mask while I travel.

Speaking for myself only, my concern is twofold: I receive regular treatment via an immune-suppressing biologic drug since being diagnosed with a preexisting condition at age 25. Separately, I remain prone to respiratory infections after a bout with a nearly fatal case of pneumonia a year later in 2016.

Consequently, the heightened risk of me catching COVID-19 (or any illness really) does not outweigh the inconvenience of wearing a mask, which I do not find particularly inconvenient to begin with.

In fact, I first wore a face mask on a plane in 2016. After spending a week at Lenox Hill Hospital due to the aforementioned pneumonia incident, I flew home to my parents’ house to recover, before heading back to New York City on St. Patrick’s Day. I still remember the looks people gave me and will never forget meeting then-Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who was also waiting to board his Southwest flight at St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL). Naturally, he asked me why I was wearing a mask.

Beyond people like me, I expect to see seemingly “healthy” travelers wearing masks to avoid contracting airborne illnesses unrelated to COVID-19.

This practice is common in Asia, where residents have long turned to surgical masks for protection in public against far more than epidemics.

Related: It’s official: Airline mask rules begin to fall

Caroline Tanner on a flight to London in 2021. (Photo by Caroline Tanner/The Points Guy)

“I will continue to wear a mask in public and on all transportation, including flights. I’ve had COVID-19 twice (once fully vaccinated and once with a booster) and frankly, I don’t trust my fellow passengers to get on a plane with the virus because they didn’t want to miss a trip,” said TPG senior editor Benét Wilson. “And I like the fact that I haven’t caught a cold or my allergies haven’t flared up on a plane since I started wearing masks. So until I hear the pandemic has truly died down, my mask will stay on.”

Beyond reasons to consider whether it is necessary for you to wear a mask, you might see people making their decision based on a sense of collective responsibility, a concept often at odds with an inherent sense of personal freedom ingrained in American rhetoric.

“While I will most likely not be wearing it, I will certainly have a mask with me when I travel … flights, trains, Ubers, etc.,” said TPG senior director Taylor Jenkins. “I want to be prepared for the event in which a seat neighbor would feel more comfortable with me wearing a mask – perhaps they’re wearing one themselves or they explicitly ask.”

Related: Is it time to rethink COVID-19 travel mandates in the US?

For some, the peace of mind offered in knowing you can avoid derailing international travel plans by wearing a mask en route to your destination is reason enough to keep wearing a mask, further fueled by the predeparture test requirement still in place for all travelers age 2 and older to the U.S.

As of Monday, the Biden administration confirmed it has no plans to lift the current predeparture testing requirement at this time.

“I’ll continue wearing them on planes and the subway just for peace of mind — especially while traveling abroad. While I’m not high risk and I don’t have kids at home to worry about, I’ve enjoyed not dealing with colds or other sicknesses as of late, and I think that’s in part due to the consistent mask-wearing,” TPG senior editor Madison Blancaflor told me. “The last thing I want is to be stuck away from home sick, whether with COVID-19 or the flu or something else.”

Bottom line

Overall, research supports the theory that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 on an airplane is relatively low, thanks to the use of face coverings. Of course, the likelihood of transmission further decreases if all people on board have recently tested negative for COVID-19.

“Studies have shown that the risk of transmission is 1 in a million on a flight,” said Yu. “The predeparture testing and mask mandates were all layers of protection that helped to reassure travelers during the height of COVID-19 cases.”

As an observer, I got chills when watching videos of passengers taking their masks off midflight upon hearing the news.

“I flew from Denmark to the United Kingdom this morning and not a single passenger or crew member on the flight was wearing a mask. It felt so normal I forgot we had even had a pandemic,” said TPG senior writer Ben Smithson. “There seems to be a real urgency in Europe to return to normal ASAP right now after two years of uncertainty. I won’t be wearing a mask if I’m not required to, though I’ll always carry one with me just in case – I discovered on the weekend they can be used as an emergency eye mask, too. I have no issue with anyone around me wearing a mask or keeping their distance.”

Ultimately, moving forward, for the first time in two years, you are now in charge of your fate when it comes to wearing a mask.

Choose wisely.

Related: What airlines are saying about the end of the federal mask mandate

Featured photo of United Airlines passengers checking in for flights at San Francisco International Airport on April 19, 2022, by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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