DALLAS – They’ll refer to it as the “Day the Dam Broke.” Most major US airlines are dropping their mask requirements after today’s mandate overturn.
Within hours of US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizell’s rejection of the CDC’s request to extend by two weeks the mask mandate on public transport, including airlines, several major US carriers, along with the TSA and some airports, announced that masks are, effective immediately, optional for travelers and employees.
As of this writing, Alaska Airlines (AS), American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), Southwest Airlines (WN), and United Airlines (UA) have announced that masks are now optional on their aircraft.
Alaska was first out of the gate, issuing a statement on Twitter saying that “Face masks are officially optional in airports and onboard all Alaska and Horizon Air [QX] flights effective immediately.”
Delta shared guidance with employees and passengers, saying, “Effectively immediately, masks are optional for all airport employees, crew members, and customers inside US airports and on board all aircraft domestically, as well as on most international flights.”
The statement goes on to say that DL employees and customers may continue to wear masks if they choose to do so. “Wearing a well-fitting mask protects the wearer, even if others around them are not wearing masks.”
Later in the evening, Hawaiian Airlines (HA) and Spirit Airlines (NK) both announced face masks were optional for guests and employees on board their flights.
TSA Issues Statement, CDC Removes “Do Not Travel” Countries
The TSA released a statement saying that it will no longer “enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and in transportation hubs. The TSA will also rescind the new security directives that were scheduled to take effect tomorrow.
The TSA statement added that the “CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time.”
Also, today, as its domestic mask mandate was struck down, the CDC removed all countries from its “Do Not Travel” list after months of warning all travelers to avoid a long list of countries due to “very high” COVID-19 levels.
The federal agency removed 89 countries from the list. The highest Level 4 designation will now be held for “exceptional conditions” such as a worrisome increase in COVID cases, a novel variety, or a breakdown in healthcare infrastructure.
Airlines note that given the “unexpected nature” of the announcement, passengers may encounter inconsistent enforcement over the next 24 hours as the news is communicated more broadly. “Remember to be understanding and patient with others who may not be aware that enforcement is no longer required,” the DL guidance said.
For instance, a passenger replying to a tweet by AA said, “Why did a flight attendant just make me put my mask on and say the mandate isn’t ended?”
For its part, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) said, “Masks are optional. Please be sure to check with your airline and destination for more information.”
United Airlines’ tweet on the matter encouraged passengers on its international flights to review the requirements of their destination country where masks may still be required.
“More comfortable keeping yours on? Go right ahead… the choice is yours,” UA’s statement said.
A Contentious Mandate
The mask mandate was set to expire today, but the CDC, in an effort to understand the ramifications and seriousness of the BA.2 variant, added two weeks to the mandate, requiring those on public transport to wear masks through May 3.
However, Mizell’s rejection of the extension, citing a variety of factors including improper rulemaking by the CDC, overturned the mandate. This was the mandate’s fifth extension.
Airlines have for months lobbied the government to end the mandate, saying that air filtration systems on today’s aircraft make transmission of the virus unlikely.
Featured image: Salt Lake City E-Jets tails | United Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways