US airlines seek end to Covid mask mandate despite passenger wariness

Airline executives and politicians are piling on pressure for the US to let Covid-19 mask rules expire on schedule next week, even as a majority of the public wants to keep them.

Forced mask-wearing has caused friction in aircraft cabins. Last year, 72 per cent of a record 5,981 reports of unruly passengers were mask-related, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which proposed a total of $5mn in fines for such behaviour.

A diverse group of advocates wants to see the mask requirement disappear as it has within other indoor spaces. Next Monday the federal government’s order for travellers on public transport is set to lapse unless officials issue another extension.

Domestic airlines have led the call to end the mandate, with chief executives of seven carriers including American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines telling President Joe Biden in a letter last month that it was “no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment”.

“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on aeroplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks”, especially when considering the quality of on-board air-filtration systems, the executives wrote.

The executives stressed that airline employees were enduring the “burden” of enforcing the mask mandate and international pre-departure testing — another requirement they want eliminated — as conflicts with unruly passengers persist.

At Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, the union representing flight attendants also supports lifting the mask rule, noting that getting people to obey is “one of the most difficult jobs we have ever faced”. However, the US’s largest cabin crew union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, has opted not to take a position.

Recent public opinion surveys indicated that many Americans want to keep aviation mask mandates in place, however. The Harris Poll found that 60 per cent of people surveyed at the beginning of April supported keeping the mandate.

Yet public support for the mask rule is falling: in another survey, Morning Consult also found 60 per cent support it, but that was down 11 points since January.

There are also differences in opinion that track people’s political affiliation, one of the hallmarks of the US response to the coronavirus crisis since the pandemic began over two years ago. Among Democrats, 70 per cent favour the aircraft mask requirement, while only 50 per cent of Republicans do so, according to the Harris Poll.

Twenty-one US states that have Republican attorneys-general last month sued the federal government to overturn the mandate, arguing that it had exceeded its authority. A group of 17 Republican members of Congress filed a separate, similar lawsuit.

Face-covering fatigue also appears to be setting in in Democrat-led big cities: mask compliance on the New York City subway has fallen to a new low of 83 per cent, with only 70 per cent wearing a mask correctly, according to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The MTA and the Chicago Transit Authority, which operate the nation’s two largest mass-transit systems, have said they have no plans to impose their own mask rules if the federal mandate is lifted. The American Public Transportation Association, a lobbying group, has asked the White House to let the mandate lapse.

Public health experts have said that even though cases, hospitalisations and deaths have plummeted since last winter’s Covid-19 peak, the Biden administration needs to weigh the potential impact of another wave. In some parts of the country the BA.2 coronavirus subvariant is causing an increase in new cases.

“It’s a very fluid situation. On one hand, everyone is ready to go beyond . . . the mask mandate. And on the other hand, we’re finding that there’s this big upswing going on with the BA.2 variant,” said Leonard Marcus, co-director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who said he will continue to wear a mask on planes without the mandate.

“The problem with community spread” is that “airlines take people from one community to the next,” he said, and once the mask mandate ends, it will be very difficult to reimpose.

While the risk level is probably low enough to justify lifting the directive, “the overall trends are not going down, and I would like to see them going down rather than flattening and going up in some locations” before ending it, said David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The US Transportation Security Administration reaffirmed that the mask mandate remains in place until next Monday, and “if there is a change one way or another, we will make an announcement”. Ashish Jha, the White House’s new chief Covid-19 adviser, told NBC-TV’s Today Show on Monday that extending the mandate was “absolutely on the table”, adding that the decision rested with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ending the mask requirement will not have a “meaningful impact on demand” for air travel, said Savanthi Syth, an analyst at Raymond James. “The bigger win for travel demand will be when they do away with the testing requirement” since “the risk of getting stuck somewhere” presents a hurdle.