Masks Are No Longer Required on Airplanes

I’m currently flying—here’s what happened in the air

When I hopped into a Lyft at 6 a.m. to head to the airport, my driver said, “I have a question for you.” Oh, great, I thought. “You’re my first rider of the week. Did the app ask you to wear a mask?”

It hadn’t! Being triply vaccinated, I figured I’d enjoy a maskless ride before entering the airport for my three-flight, 20-something-hour travel day—the duration of which I assumed I’d be wearing a mask until reaching my final destination of Norway, which has lifted all COVID-19 restrictions.1

 

But as I was working in the lounge on my first layover, something interesting happened. A federal judge from Florida, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, struck down the mask mandate in a 59-page ruling, arguing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had operated in contradiction to the Public Health Services Act of 1944. In a nutshell, she claimed that the CDC did not have the property authority to implement a mask mandate, meaning the order was void. That mandate was due to expire today, but the CDC extended it through May 3 last week.

I looked around the lounge and didn’t see anyone unmasking. I figured it’d be complicated to change airport and airline policies, so we’d probably have to wear masks for a while. So I boarded my Delta flight to Amsterdam, mask firmly in place.

While in the air, I kept tabs on the proceedings and noticed that things were changing fast. United issued a statement to employees saying that masks were optional on all domestic and some international flights (depending on rules at the destination), effective immediately.2 Again, I took a look at the travelers around me. Nothing. I checked Delta’s social media accounts and news center. Again, nothing. No big deal, I thought—I was prepared to wear a mask throughout the flight anyway.

But then it happened. Just shy of three hours into my flight, our captain got on the PA system and announced that due to a new ruling, we were free to remove our masks for the duration of our flight. Immediately, cheers and applause echoed throughout the cabin.

I’m seated just in front of the galley, and while I couldn’t make out what the flight attendants were saying. There was some sort of heated discussion. Then one of them picked up the phone to make a public announcement. “Just a reminder that masks are still required at airports in the Netherlands. So please keep your mask on hand,” she advised. (Technically they’re required on planes, too, but Dutch national carrier KLM Royal Dutch Airlines recently lifted its mask policies anyway.)3

That’s a fair point, and it echoes United’s announcement that in-flight mask policies will vary based on destination.2 But for the time being, I’m seeing many of my fellow passengers sans masks, and it’s a refreshing sight indeed.

As for what happens next, the Biden administration will have an opportunity to challenge and reverse Judge Mizzelle’s ruling. But for the time being, it is no longer federally required to wear a mask on public transportation in the United States. Which includes transportation centers like airports and train stations and modes of transportation like airplanes. That said, individual operators can enforce mask policies, though it doesn’t seem likely that many will. Given what I’ve just experienced in the air.