Air travel in the US is back to the unrestricted pre-Covid days as airlines no longer require passengers and aircrew to wear facemasks onboard aircraft. This follows a Florida court ruling on April 18, which overturned an earlier recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to wear masks at airports and onboard aircraft at any time. US airlines face new situation without mask requirements.

With increasing Omicron cases, the requirement to wear face masks was recently extended until May 3, but the Middle District of Florida ruled that the mask order “exceeded CDC’s statutory order” and must therefore be abolished with immediate effect. The court order was met with disappointment in the White House, which continues to say that wearing masks is an appropriate tool to prevent the spreading of the Covid virus.

While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) initially took a watch-and-see approach, it later on Monday issued a statement, saying that “TSA will no longer enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs. TSA will also rescind the new Security Directives that were scheduled to take effect tomorrow. CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”

US airlines pushed for ending the requirement

Almost immediately after the TSA statement, US airlines announced that wearing masks will no longer be obligatory onboard their aircraft. American Airlines said: “American Airlines has prioritized the health and safety of its team members and customers throughout the pandemic and has supported the federal government’s measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. In accordance with the Transportation Security Administration no longer enforcing the federal face mask mandate, face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights. Please note face masks may still be required based on local ordinances, or when traveling to/from certain international locations based on country requirements.”

United Airlines issued a similar statement, but added: “More comfortable keeping yours on? Go right ahead…the choice is yours (you like dinomite either way!” Delta Airlines said that “Delta employees and customers may continue wearing masks if they so choose. Wearing a well-fitting mask protects the wearer, even if others around them are not wearing masks.”

In a letter to President Biden on March 22, Delta CEO Ed Bastian and colleagues from other airlines urged the government to end the Covid travel mandates: “Considering the improved public health metrics in the US and medical advancements to prevent the worst outcomes of COVID-19, the federal mask mandate and pre-departure testing no longer fit with the current environment.”

While the court ruling frees occupants of aircraft flying within the US from wearing a mask, Alaska Airlines points out that “guests must continue to wear masks on flights to and from Canada.” The carrier says that “even as more pandemic protocols and policies ease, our team will remain vigilant and prepared for whatever may come next.” US airlines experienced a strong recovery last year from Covid crisis, only to be hit by the Omicron effect in the first quarter of this year. Since March, bookings are recovering and have even outpaced 2019 levels, Delta Airlines recently said.

Alaska continues to ban ‘banned’ passengers

Passengers who refused to wear masks on board have caused various issues in the past two years, including pilots who sometimes refused to take off or even returned to airports, passengers arrested for not wearing a mask, or acting violently. TSA advised airlines to penalize first offenders with a fine of $500-1.000 and second offenders $1.000-3.000. Violating the mask requirements has resulted in airlines banning passengers from boarding their aircraft. According to the FAA, there were 4.290 mask-related incidents in the US in 2021 and 744 until April 12 this year. 

There are no recent numbers available on banned passengers, but back in May 2021, US media reported that airlines had banned some 4.000 from flying with them. In its media statement on April 18, Alaska Airlines points out that many of them will remain banned for now. “Based on our reports, we will have some guests whose behavior was particularly egregious who will remain banned, even after the mask policy rescinded.”

Elsewhere, airlines continue to take different approaches to wear face masks. British Airways ended the requirement on March 16, but other airlines within International Airlines Group like Aer Lingus and Iberia still require wearing them. That also applies to Lufthansa and Air France-KLM. Easyjet advises passengers that only on a limited number of routes there is no obligation but most countries still have face masks in their toolbox to spread the virus. 

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Active as journalist since 1987, starting with regional newspaper Zwolse Courant. Grand Prix reporter in 1997 at Dutch monthly Formule 1, general reporter Lelystad/Flevoland at De Stentor/Dagblad Flevoland, from 2002 until June 2021 radio/tv reporter/presentor with Omroep Flevoland.
Since mid-2016 freelance aviation journalist, since June 2021 fully dedicated to aviation. Reporter/editor AirInsight since December 2018. Contributor to Airliner World, Piloot & Vliegtuig. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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