The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to require face masks in airports and on airplanes even as Democratic governors across the country are lifting mask mandates for indoor settings where the risk of COVID-19 transmission is much higher. And while that federal mandate is scheduled to expire on March 18, flight attendant unions want the TSA to extend it.
That position is unsurprising in the sense that the unions have always strongly supported the TSA mandate, which was first imposed more than a year ago. But it makes little sense given the weak justification for the mask rule and its adverse impact on flight attendants.
The unions say they are concerned about adult passengers who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and travelers younger than 5, who are not yet eligible for vaccines. But children have always faced a tiny risk of life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms, and immunocompromised adults who might not get the full benefit from vaccination can protect themselves from infection by wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, regardless of what other passengers are doing.
The rationale for the mask mandate was never very strong, since the conditions on airplanes are not conducive to virus transmission. The ventilation systems on commercial aircraft, which mix outdoor air with air recycled through HEPA filters and limit air flow between rows, help explain why there were few outbreaks associated with commercial flights even before vaccines were available.
"The risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is low," an October 2020 article in The Journal of the American Medical Association noted. "Despite substantial numbers of travelers, the number of suspected and confirmed cases of in-flight COVID-19 transmission between passengers around the world appears small." Sebastian Hoehl, a researcher at the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany, concurred in an interview with Scientific American the following month, saying "an airplane cabin is probably one of the most secure conditions you can be in."
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly reiterated this point during a Senate hearing in December. "I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment," he said. "It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting." American Airlines CEO Doug Parker agreed. "An aircraft is the safest place you can be," he said. "It's true of all of our aircraft—they all have the same HEPA filters and air flow."
Given the availability of vaccines that dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease and N95 masks that protect people who wear them, the TSA rule is blatantly paternalistic. The people most at risk from COVID-19 are adults who decline to be vaccinated. The risk to children is infinitesimal even if they are not vaccinated—smaller than the risk of dying in a car crash if their parents decide to avoid mask hassles by driving instead of flying.
The flight attendant unions are unfazed by these facts. "While more of the world now has access to life-saving vaccines, we still have a significant portion of the population that [is] vulnerable, including our youngest passengers," says Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines employees. "Our youngest passengers do not yet have access to the vaccine," says Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which represents employees of several major and regional airlines. "The airplane is a unique but controlled environment for everyone's safety. The layered approach to safety and security includes masks."
The AFA's enthusiasm for hygiene theater is of a piece with its enthusiasm for security theater. In 2005, when the TSA began allowing passengers to carry some common tools, including screwdrivers shorter than seven inches and scissors with blades shorter than four inches, the union literally screamed bloody murder.
"TSA needs to take a moment to reflect on why [the rules] were created in the first place—after the world had seen how ordinary household items could create such devastation," an AFA spokeswoman said. "When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safely, but the aisles will be running with blood."
Although that never happened, objections from the AFA helped persuade the TSA to reverse course in 2013, when it planned to start letting passengers carry small pocket knives, with blades no longer than six centimeters (2.36 inches) and no wider than half an inch. The TSA said the decision "was made as part of TSA's overall risk-based security approach and aligns TSA with International Civil Aviation Organization Standards and our European counterparts."
A TSA spokesman explained that the agency's "risk-based security approach" allowed TSA officers "to better focus their efforts on finding higher-threat items such as explosives." In addition to short knives, the TSA said it would allow miniature baseball bats, lacrosse and hockey sticks, pool cues, ski poles, and up to two golf clubs per passenger. But after initially defending the new rules, the TSA capitulated to pressure from the AFA and members of Congress. The AFA, which campaigned against the new policy under the slogan "No Knives on Planes Ever Again," celebrated, calling the reversal "a good lesson in collective action."
As those examples suggest, the AFA's demands do not necessarily align with the interests of passengers. The same is true of its position on the mask mandate, which is a source of discomfort, annoyance, and anxiety for many travelers, especially when they have to force masks on recalcitrant toddlers. Nor does the AFA's support for maintaining the mandate necessarily align with the interests of its members, who are tasked with enforcing the rule in addition to all their other duties, which has predictably led to much unpleasantness, as The New York Times notes:
Disagreements over masks and the refusal of some passengers to wear them led to frequent shouting matches, fights and other problems with unruly passengers during the pandemic. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 15, the Federal Aviation Administration received nearly 400 reports of unruly passengers, including 255 reports of passengers refusing to comply with a federal mandate that they wear masks on planes.
Last month, a man on a Delta Air Lines flight from Dublin to New York who refused to wear his mask pulled down his pants and exposed his buttocks. Nearly two weeks later, an American Airlines flight to London from Miami turned around about an hour into its journey because of a passenger who refused to wear a mask.
Cases like those are why airline executives and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants have been urging the federal authorities to create a federal no-fly list for unruly passengers.
The problem is manifestly not insufficiently draconian enforcement of the mask mandate. It is the mask mandate itself. For every obnoxious passenger who moons, berates, or assaults the rule's enforcers, there are many others who quietly resent this thinly justified imposition.
The AFA says it is "critical that we maintain passenger confidence in the safety of air travel." How does provoking fights over masks enhance that confidence? And if masks "don't add much, if anything" to "the safety of air travel," how can that rationale justify sacrificing passengers' comfort or turning around an entire flight because one guy refuses to cover his face?
AFA President Sara Nelson adamantly rejects the idea that passengers should be allowed to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to tolerate. "Flight attendants would never tell you that 'whether you put on the oxygen mask is a matter of personal choice,'" she said in an NBC News opinion piece last year. "We understand that air turbulence really can throw you against the ceiling without warning, so we don't say, 'Some people believe seatbelts won't keep you safe, so it's up to you to decide whether to wear one.'"
As far as Nelson is concerned, the same argument applies with equal force to the mask mandate, despite the lack of evidence that it makes a significant difference. "We're also trained to help stop the spread of infectious disease," she wrote. "We're not just enforcing these long-overdue mask policies because we have to: We understand that masks are a way we keep ourselves and each other safe. And we're grateful policymakers are backing us up."
Whether they will continue to do that is unclear. The TSA has extended the mask rule twice and may do so again. "If there is a change to halt or extend the mask requirement, we will make an announcement," a TSA spokeswoman told the Times. "As of now, nothing new to share."