Major airlines drop mask mandate after federal judge rules against it

April 21, 2022

Just hours after a Florida judge struck down a federal mask mandate on planes and other forms of public transportation, major airlines announced Monday, Aprl 18, 2022, that they will no longer require face coverings on domestic flights.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will also stop enforcing the mandate for now: A Biden administration official told reporters Monday evening that the court decision means the federal order is “not in effect at this time. Therefore, the TSA will not enforce its security directives” requiring masks, the according to the Washington Post.

The pressure to end the mask mandate

“This is obviously a disappointing decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, adding that the federal government will continue to recommend wearing masks in public transportation settings while deciding whether to appeal the ruling.

In the ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Middle District of Florida, Mizelle said the mandate exceeded the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s authority.

Mizelle ruled that the CDC, which had extended the mandate for air travel and public transit through May 3, fell short in its argument to keep the mask requirement in place for “sanitation.” The CDC relied on the 1944 Public Health Service Act when it first imposed the mandate, according to the Post.

The judge, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, ruled that the CDC had exceeded its legal authority, that it had improperly avoided notice and comment procedures, and that its mandate was “arbitrary and capricious.”

“Wearing a mask cleans nothing. At most, it traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance,” Mizelle wrote in the ruling.

Pressure to end the transportation mask mandate had been growing in recent weeks. In late March, 21 states, most of them led by Republicans, sued to immediately end the requirement. Days earlier, executives from 10 major airlines, including American, Southwest, United and Delta, had asked the Biden administration to end the mask mandate as well.

Are Americans divided?

But in a March poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans were divided on their feelings about mask mandates on public transportation, with 48 percent saying it should be extended and 51 percent wanting it to expire.

For some travelers, the announcement from the TSA that it would stop enforcing a mask mandate came as they were already on their way — in airport terminals, on the tarmac or even in the air.

Many passengers greeted the news with applause and cheers, as seen in videos on social media. One took a celebratory selfie, with most fellow passengers in wide, maskless grins, The New York Times reports. A pilot told those aboard his flight: “Congratulations.”

On the other hand, some passengers were uncomfortable with the unexpected announcement.

“For this announcement to happen literally minutes before we got in the plane made me feel very uncomfortable,” Scott Hechinger, a lawyer, was waiting for his delayed flight to New York at a crowded terminal in West Palm Beach, FL, wrote in a text message. On his flight, about 75 percent were unmasked, according to the Times.

He was worried about his wife and 6-year-old son, who were in the air on a separate flight en route to Los Angeles.

“It hit me that my wife and young son would also likely get this announcement midflight and be more exposed than usual,” he wrote. “I’m upset, uncomfortable, and frustrated.”

Even as the highly contagious BA.2 subvariant fuels infections in the United States, with cases climbing in some northeastern cities, the TSA has reported that air travel is surging, with up to 2 million people flying every day, according to the Post.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 17 airlines, noted in a statement Monday that while legal uncertainties remain, passengers should try to be patient during the transition.

“Immediately, we urge calm and consistency in the airports and on planes. The last thing we need for workers on the frontlines or passengers traveling today is confusion and chaos,” the association said. “In aviation operations, it is impossible to simply flip a switch from one minute to the next. It takes a minimum of 24 to 48 hours to implement new procedures and communicate this throughout the entire network. Policies and procedures must be updated and thoroughly communicated to hundreds of thousands of employees, along with millions of travelers. We encourage travelers to check the latest updates from airlines for specific travel requirements while airlines implement any new policies.”