OPINION: It’s About Time: Federal Mask Mandate for Air Travel lifted after countless extensions (and assaulted flight attendants)


Bailey Noel

Mask Mandate signs line the doors of airport transportation at Pittsburgh International Airport

Bailey Noel, Chief Photographer

The following does not represent the opinions of RMU Sentry Media, any airlines, or airports within the Greater Pittsburgh area and are the writer’s own.

After a year of countless extensions and assaulted flight crews, the federal mask mandate that required all passengers and crew to wear facemasks at all times is no more. As someone who has worked in the airline industry since June 2021, I knew this day would eventually come, but I was surprised to see this on Apr.18.

Why this was such a surprise is because the most recent mandate extension was set to expire on May 3, as the mandate was recently extended from Apr. 13. But it is also a surprise for me because as I’ve watched the world begin to open little by little last summer, I saw more of the general public comfortable stashing their masks away while out and about.

I also saw the federal government stand firm with its “no mask, no-fly” mentality as it continued to extend mandates set to end. I saw them give extensions after extensions to this mandate. Even as public places and institutions such as our own Robert Morris let go of requiring masks indoors in March, with no expectation of the federal extensions stopping anytime soon.

As someone who was a full-time contracted ramp agent for an ultra-low-cost airline from June to August 2021, I was a first-hand witness to what this masked “new normal” was like at my workplace.

Although I am currently a seasonal employee preparing to go full time once again in the summer, my first three months of full-time employment during the past summer included constant announcements concerning face masks, that they must be worn over the nose and chin at all times, that they cannot be a bandana or other cloth, and many ending with the fact that wearing a mask is required under federal law (followed by my coworkers emphasizing that point to each other and the poor TSA Agent stuck working in the bag room by yelling out “federal law”).

From my perspective, they were a hassle. My coworkers and I, who did not regularly interact with passengers, were not required to wear face masks outside on the ramp or in our bag room. But anytime we had to cross into public areas, such as when delivering baggage or mobility aids directly to the gate or even walking through the terminal to go outside, we had to mask up.

You may be surprised to hear that I believe that the federal mask mandate for transportation was essential in heights of our nation’s fight against COVID-19 and I’m not against a second mandate in the future if the numbers warrant it.

I remember when I first started venturing out in the fall of 2020 after the shock and scare of the original wave began to wane, many people dropped their masks, despite multiple of the stores I visited requiring it. Employees couldn’t do anything about it, as when asked, the maskless said that they had “medical conditions” and I know not everyone did, as I saw people bragging on social media about getting away without a mask and doing the same straight to my face in person (spraying their aerosols and droplets everywhere… the germaphobe in me was not thrilled…).

Although I sympathize with the small, small, minority whose flying became inaccessible when the federal mask mandate was enacted in February 2021, the “no mask, no-fly” policy came out of necessity to protect flight crews and airport staff from the irresponsibly maskless. The subset of which, would love to get around being told to wear a mask on a plane by declaring to have a “medical condition”.

It’s people like this who the federal government needed to protect us from, and they were successful. This was why I was more than happy to put aside my feelings about dawning and removing a little piece of cloth at work each day when interacting with passengers. But, in my opinion, they rode this “success” for too long.

I just so happened to have started work in the airline industry a few months after the COVID-19 vaccine became publicly available and the public began getting their vaccines.

I understood when I began this job and after I closed out my first calendar year with my airline why the mandate had continued to remain. As numbers continued to fall and remain relatively low to start out 2022, thanks to the majority of people being vaccinated, and see a new group of public entities re-open, such as broadway, and a second group no longer requiring masks for the vaccinated, such as our own Robert Morris University, I noticed that air travel was an outlier, and in my opinion an unnecessary one.

This is why I write in April 2022 that it is indeed finally time for the end of this mandate… at least for now.

If a major spike in case numbers were to happen, I would support the second installment of a federal mask mandate, and even potential preventative mandates, such as temporarily requiring travelers to wear masks during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday peak travel seasons.

But what’s the point of abandoning the mask mandate now? What are the benefits of having a maskless summer vacation season? From my perspective as an airline employee, I look forward to fewer reports of passenger violence against flight attendants and gate agents, who are simply doing their job when they ask entitled passengers who refuse to cooperate to pull their masks above their noses.

In a 2021 Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO (AFA) survey, 85% of American flight attendants reported having an encounter with an unruly passenger. I have heard firsthand from my gate agent coworkers stories of such encounters, and of course, have seen viral videos of unacceptable passenger behavior that have included verbal and physical abuse against flight attendants.

Despite serious penalties and a “zero tolerance” policy from the FAA and airlines alike, it doesn’t seem to deter many from getting up in-flight crew’s faces, or even worse, getting physical. This is of course no new phenomenon, but only one exacerbated by the pandemic, and partially by masks. I can imagine flight attendants will enjoy a maskless summer, not only to feel the recycled air on their faces, but to not feel the fist of a passenger declaring that they refuse to follow the rules and deciding to break a couple more in the process, and potentially a poor flight attendants nose.

Airports across the country are now doing away with masks, including nearby Pittsburgh International Airport. In a newsletter from the airport, they said, “Pittsburgh International Airport officials said the guidance means that masking is no longer required in the terminal for passengers or staff.”

The Department of Justice announced several days after the federal mask mandate that they will be appealing the decision, as the CDC maintains that facemasks are still necessary during travel and on public transportation, so “Maskless Summer” is currently in the balance for the airline industry.

I know that the CEOs who came together to pen an open letter to president Biden to repeal the mandate last month, employees all the way down to us ramp agents will be rooting for the opportunity to fly maskless alongside our customers once again, for the first time since the pandemic started.