The federal rule that requires air travelers to wear face masks, which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) first imposed more than a year ago, was scheduled to expire this Friday. But the TSA extended the requirement for at least another month, for reasons that are even harder to understand than the original rationale for the mask mandate.
That is saying a lot, because the scientific justification for the TSA's rule has always been weak, given that the conditions on airplanes are not conducive to COVID-19 transmission. The ventilation systems on commercial aircraft, which mix outdoor air with air recycled through HEPA filters and limit airflow 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. "An airplane cabin is probably one of the most secure conditions you can be in," he observed.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly reiterated that point during a Senate hearing last 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 airflow."
On February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stopped recommending general indoor masking in parts of the country it rates as "low" or "medium" risk, which as of last week covered more than 98 percent of the U.S. population. According to the CDC, then, it is safe to dispense with masks in stores, churches, schools, bars, and restaurants—environments where the risk of virus transmission is much higher than it is on airplanes.
Yet the TSA said it extended its mask rule "at CDC's recommendation" so the agency could develop "a revised policy framework" based on "the latest science." Mask rules for transportation are complicated, said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, because people are "moving from one zone to another"—an explanation that makes little sense when virtually the entire country is in the same "zone" as far as the CDC's mask advice goes.
The TSA's mask mandate has predictably led to much unpleasantness, driving a surge in disputes between travelers and flight attendants. For every obnoxious passenger who moons, berates, or assaults the mandate's enforcers, there are many others who quietly resent this thinly justified imposition, especially when it compels them to force masks on recalcitrant toddlers.
That expectation is especially difficult to justify, since the risk to children from COVID-19 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. Adult travelers, meanwhile, can protect themselves by getting vaccinated and, if they are especially cautious, by wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, regardless of what everyone else is doing.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) nevertheless urged the TSA to retain the mask rule. The AFA's enthusiasm for hygiene theater is of a piece with its enthusiasm for security theater: Back in 2005, when the TSA began letting passengers carry small scissors and short screwdrivers, the union warned that "the aisles will be running with blood."
In that case, calmer heads prevailed. But more than two decades after 9/11, U.S. travelers are still saddled with myriad nonsensical restrictions. The mask rule is just the latest example.
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