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No Mask? No Longer a Problem for Most U.S. Flights

Earlier this week, a federal district judge in Florida struck down the Biden Administration’s mask mandate for public transportation, including planes, airports, trains, and subways. The decision led to several transportation providers dropping their mask requirements, including airlines and ride-sharing companies, within hours of the ruling.  

In the 18 April decision, Judge Kathryn K. Mizelle wrote that the mask mandate issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overstepped the agency's legal authority under the Public Health Services Act and Administrative Procedure Act.

The mandate was scheduled to expire on 18 April, however, the CDC extended the mandate by two weeks, or until 3 May, in response to the current spread of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant of COVID-19. The agency also continues to recommend that people wear masks while using public transportation. 

Several U.S. airlines—including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines—announced on Monday that instead of being required, use of a mask is now optional for passengers and/or employees while on one of their planes. By Wednesday, that list also included Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines. 

While the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also announced that it would not enforce the mask mandate on planes or other forms of public transportation, both airline employees and passengers appear split on the court’s decision. 

“The Association of Flight Attendants, the nation’s largest union of cabin crews, has recently taken a neutral position on the mask rule because its members are divided about the issue. On Monday, the union’s president appealed for calm on planes and in airports,” CNBC reported

While several videos on social media depict cheering passengers removing face masks on planes when airline staff announced the news, the court’s decision also has an impact on flight crews. 

Airlines’ reactions to the ruling are unsurprising, especially when considering that within the past year, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received almost 6,000 reports of incidents involving unruly passengers, with most of the conflicts linked to mask usage. 

Of those reports, the FAA “started nearly 1,100 investigations into passenger misconduct last year, up from an average of 140 per year over the previous decade. The agency has started 345 investigations so far this year,” The New York Times reported. “…The lifting of the mask requirement may help defuse some tension, and some attendants said it would give crew members back an important tool for de-escalating conflicts: their faces.” 

Amtrak also removed its mask requirement for passengers and employees while on trains or in stations, however, kept messaging supportive of those who choose to continue wearing masks as a preventative measure against the virus. 

Besides airlines and Amtrak, several other organizations dropped their mask mandates, including, but not limited to, the Chicago Department of Aviation; Chicago Transit Authority; Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority; Massport, which runs Boston Logan International Airport; and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. 

Rideshare companies Lyft and Uber also lifted their mask requirements for passengers and drivers. 

Along with updating its no-front-seat policy, in a public message Uber also asked for passengers and drivers to remember that “many people still feel safer wearing a mask because of personal or family health situations, so please be respectful of their preferences. And if you ever feel uncomfortable, you can always cancel the trip.” 

Lyft issued a similar statement, emphasizing that if someone has COVID-19 or related symptoms, he or she should refrain from using the service. 

However, New Jersey Transit and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which are owned and operated by their respective states, said they will keep their mask requirements, CNN reported

Other sites that currently maintain mask requirements include the Philadelphia International airport, indoor spaces in Philadelphia, public schools in Hawaii and certain school districts in the United States, New York’s Broadway theaters, and other individual businesses.  

The Biden Administration noted that it is considering appealing the decision, dependent upon guidance from the CDC. Judge Mizelle’s ruling has received criticism from beyond the White House. 

“The opinion drew criticism on multiple fronts, ranging from personal attacks over the 35-year-old judge’s youth and qualifications for the bench, to accusations of judicial overreach,” The Hill reported. “For some legal experts, though, the most contentious aspect of the ruling was what they viewed as Mizelle’s flawed approach to an interpretative method known as textualism that led her to unduly narrow the scope of a landmark public health law.” 

Part of Mizelle’s decision was based on her interpretation of the meaning of “sanitation” and its use in the PHSA. Mizelle relied on dictionary definitions that emphasize cleaning something or keeping something clean—an approach that has legal experts criticizing her analysis. (Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc., Ana Carolina Daza, and Sarah Pope v. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as President of the United States, U.S. District Court for Middle District of Florida, No. 21-cv-1693-KKM-AEP, 2022)