Passengers at LaGuardia Airport on April 19, 2022.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC
The Biden administration’s mandate for the transport mask was one of the most divisive policies during the Covid pandemic. Its abrupt end this week has been just as controversial.
A Florida federal judge on Monday suspended the mandate, which for more than a year required travelers in the United States to wear masks on planes, trains and other public transportation, as well as at airports and train and bus stations, in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The rule was due to expire after May 3, though the Biden administration said it plans to appeal this week’s court decision if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assesses that masks are still needed in public transportation.
Still, the abrupt turnaround following Monday’s decision threw travelers, airlines and crews into a gray area.
The Transport Safety Administration said it would no longer enforce the rule, and airlines quickly said face masks would be optional with immediate effect. Some pilots announced the decision in the middle of the flight for applause.
Some airports and public transportation systems like those in New York and Philadelphia will still require masks, even if they would not be required to do so by airlines or the federal government.
In the two days that have passed since the ruling, there are different attitudes as to whether the change is a good or a bad thing.
An AP-NORC survey, conducted from 14 April to 18 April and published on Wednesday, showed that 56% of the population strongly or to some extent support the requirement for a face mask for transport, while 24% are against it and 20% do not for or against it.
“I was discouraged to hear,” Scott Reeves, 71, a musician and retired music professor, said at LaGuardia Airport in New York on Tuesday. Reeves said he “absolutely” will continue to wear a mask when flying, saying it “is not a big deal. Being sick is a big deal.”
Armanda Marin, 36, arrived at LaGuardia from Dallas on Tuesday, her first unmasked flight of the pandemic.
“I really do not care as long as everyone has a vaccination,” she said.
Lucas Dietrich, a 39-year-old insurance salesman, said he was relieved to leave the masks on.
“I can not stand them,” he said, adding that he feels safe given the benefits of air filtration systems. “It feels like we’re about to end this thing.”
Stewardess ditch mask police role
A group feels a special relief. Stewardesses have been subjected to the bulk of public opposition to the mandate and will now not be tasked with enforcing.
“We’re done enforcing it,” said a flight attendant from American Airlines, who declined to give her name because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
The Federal Aviation Administration last year received a record number of reports of unruly travelers on planes. More than 70% of the incidents were linked to strife over masks. Stewardesses have reported verbal abuse and passenger strife while working, some even leading to physical violence, throughout the pandemic.
Last year, the FAA introduced a zero-tolerance policy that promised stricter consequences such as large fines for unruly passenger behavior instead of softer reactions such as warnings or advice. On Wednesday, it said the policy will continue despite the end of the mask mandate.
“We fully recognize that the enforcement of the mandate has placed an incredible burden on flight attendants,” the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union representing American Airlines flight attendants, told its members Monday.
Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, wrote to the Biden administration ahead of this week’s decision, calling for an end to the mandate.
“It’s not that we are anti-masks,” she told CNBC on Tuesday. But the decision to end the mandate is a “step toward normality” for flight attendants whose jobs during the pandemic have been “exhausting and stressful.”
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the country’s largest stewardess association, said that while there are cabin crews who are in favor of ending the policy, others are not on board.
Crew members with young children who, for example, have not been vaccinated or who have been immunocompromised do not necessarily rejoice at the change.
“The only reason this has been a problem is because it was so politicized,” Nelson said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday. “We did not take a position on extending the mask mandate.”
Passengers and crews can still wear masks if they prefer.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned from this, it has to be about common courtesy and recognizing that you may not have the same situation that someone else has,” Nelson said.
Prohibited passengers from returning
Airlines, for their part, have repeatedly pressured the Biden administration to end the mask mandate, as well as the Covid pre-departure test requirement for arriving international passengers, which is still in place.
Airlines demanded that passengers wear masks from the spring of 2020, just as the pandemic took hold and quickly began banning passengers who refused to comply. That is also changing.
Alaska Airlines said it has banned more than 1,700 passengers from following the masking policy, but many of those passengers will now be welcomed back.
“Now that the mask policy has been overturned, guests who were banned solely due to non-compliance with the mask will be allowed to purchase tickets on our plane,” the airline said in a statement. “But some guests whose behavior was particularly sinister will remain banned.”
United Airlines issued a similar update: “On a case-by-case basis, we will allow some customers who were previously barred from failing to comply with mask-related rules to fly United again – after securing their obligation to follow the instructions of all crew members on board. , “said the company.
Delta Air Lines said it plans to allow customers, which it has banned from failing to follow masking rules, now that they are optional “only after each case has been reviewed and each customer demonstrates an understanding of their expected behavior when flying with us.
“Any further breach of the policies that keep us all safe will result in placement on Delta’s permanent flight ban list,” Delta said. “Customers who exhibited gross conduct and are already on the permanent no-fly list remain excluded from flying with Delta.”
American Airlines declined to comment, but will likely address this issue when it reports quarterly results Thursday morning.