74% Chance Air Travel Mask Mandate To End Before This Year’s Elections

I was an early proponent of masks on planes, when airlines were still threatening cabin crew with discipline if they wore one. I was an advocate of leveling up your mask as better masks became available. Cloth masks don’t do much, while (non-counterfeit) KN95, KF94, and especially N95 masks offered real protection.

However once vaccines were widely available, and the level of virus spread began abating in spring 2021, I thought mask mandates no longer made sense (but that many people should continue to wear them). Planes, of course, are more protective than other indoor environments where there were no such mandates in much of the country, like restaurants, bars and gyms.

While vaccines continue to hold up well (in some ways surprisingly, but fortunately!) against severe disease from the Omicron variant, and the variant itself is less virulent, there’s been unprecedented levels of spread. With such a contagious virus it’s not clear how well lesser masks, which satisfy the mandate, work. But there are returns to just about any reduction in spread when hospitals are stretched thin. So there was at least an argument for a mandate during the Omicron wave.

Without imminent threats to health care capacity, there’s little argument for delaying infection. With the newest version of Omicron, it’s so transmissible that we’re reasonably likely ‘all’ (in the limit) to get it. And brief delays no longer have high payoffs. Delay while waiting for vaccines made tremendous sense. Delay even as treatments become more available make some sense, too. But we’re on the cusp of even that, with greater availability of both variant-effective monoclonal antibodies and greater supply of Paxlovid.

It seems to me, then, that no matter what your position on continued masking on planes throughout the Omicron wave – that it no longer makes sense to extend the federal transportation mask mandate which currently runs through March 18, 2022.

The New York Times links to my take on masking on planes and prediction that the mandate will end before the midterm elections – that it will ultimately be lifted for political rather than scientific reasons.

Betting markets now give 3-1 odds that the mask mandate will be gone before the election. Prediction markets are frequently more reliable than expert commentary because well-informed observers put real money behind their arguments (it’s their revealed expectations, rather than cheap talk). And Polymarket is the most robust platform (though the Feds don’t like it).

Governor Kathy Hochul of New York understood something important when imposing mask mandates in her state. Mandates were lifted when they didn’t make sense. She re-imposed them when she believed that they did. This was tied to levels of spread that might tax hospital capacity, something still fresh in the mind of New Yorkers. And she made those mandates temporary – everyone could understand what was at stake, and that they were only being asked to take preventive measures for a limited time. She lifted the mandate as the immediate risk subsided. That gives her credibility to re-impose measures if and when they’re needed again.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Give it up about March 18: it will be extended, likely with no expiration date. Masks do very little to “stop the spread” but are an important signal to others of one’s virtue and willingness to put safety above all else, including free speech and “freedumb”.
    Homeland security says that anyone speaking against our safety is a domestic terrorist. You can spot them easily because domestic terrorists go unmasked in public. We will need masks forever so we know who “they” are.

  2. I am amused by opinions and discussions of ‘logic’ when it comes to wearing masks on airplanes. There’s no logic here, it’s all just a political game to see how long we will put up with being jerked around. If the politicians decide to ‘do something nice for us’ in the middle of March, it will only happen if they think it politically expedient for themselves.

  3. VERY convenient timing…. just before midterm campaigns. And ID!IOTS keep saying that mask mandates weren’t political… *rolleyes*

  4. Masking now is a bit like the color coded “terror threats”, you know the ones that Bush & Company would raise before an election–hopefully for once it will go the other way and their requirement will be gone. While I agree masks initially made some sense it’s time to drop the requirement. Get vaccinated or get very sick. (And if you cannot get the shots then take it on yourself to protect yourself. I am sorry but that is the situation with a lot of exposures.) And I certainly agree with JL100. The testing before coming back into the US is sort of like building a dam across a flat lake. You don’t stop any flow at all.

  5. I’ve had several international trips in the past few months. Yeah you still need to wear masks but enforcement is almost nonexistent. On a foreign carrier many either had their mask half on or didn’t have one at all for long periods of time. Even on the US carrier little was said if your mask was hanging low.

    Like we need another example of how stupid this has all become, I was in the security line in Accra, heading to my gate. The guy working the line made us social distance per the circles on the floor. He even made a couple split up, 6 foot apart. Seeing that I couldn’t help myself. JustI said you realize soon several hundred of us will be crammed together in a plane for 10 hours. What’s the point of this?

    It’s time to let it go and move on from these mandates that really never made much sense.

  6. As we win back the rights that were stolen, don’t settle for any less than the way we lived before this whole charade.

    Zero compromise.

  7. There is no reason for mask mandates to not end tomorrow.
    Vaccines are readily available and, even if they don’t do all they were touted to do, they minimize the impact on the vaccinated.
    Masks as worn by the public do virtually nothing. The entire notion of translating the benefits of medical professional mask wearing to use of non-surgical masks by the general public will be shown to have been one of the biggest ruses of covid era government rules.
    The idea that the 90% of travelers that are vaccinated and/or have very low risk of serious disease from the covid should conform to the desires of the unvaccinated, the paranoid, and those that have medical issues needs to change. Never in the history of humanity have healthy people been expected to change their behavior for as long as has taken place in the covid era – with no benefit to the majority of the public.

    Airline execs know they want masks gone; they are a huge source of the behavior problems on flights and they also symbolize that the world is not safe so business travel will not return; there are a certain number of people including high revenue business passengers that won’t travel as long as mask and other restrictions are still in place.

    OTOH, airline execs and the government are bowing to unions which want restrictions to last as long as possible so they can do the least amount possible. Nearly universal calls for kids to be back in-person in school and the Canadian trucker situation shows that westerners have had enough. The US is now a laggard in restoring freedoms to American and it will come at a growing cost to the party in control.

  8. @Shawn Olsen….fine, you wear a mask..or two or three if you wish. Just don’t expect everyone else to pander to your paranoia.

  9. While I wear an N95 in public, having a mask mandate on airplanes but not in other places makes little sense for public health. There’s nothing that prevents transmission after leaving the airport.

    I would hope that the freedom crowd would not abuse people who continue to wear a mask for whatever reason they have, and those that mask don’t complain about those that don’t.

    The real question is on testing requirements for international travel, and when that’s likely to go away.

  10. You can wear all the masks you want. Hell wear one of those personal bubbles airlines won’t let you wear. Dont make everyone have to live in your world of irrational fear

  11. Like most of the idiotic commentary regarding “freedumb” and efficacy of masks, I wonder where Leff pulled that 74% number, probably out of his backside. Infantile discussion. We are wearing masks because the Federal Government was too chickenshit to enforce a domestic vaccine mandate. Vaccines are more effective than masks, but when you are dealing with an ignorant populace as evinced by the commentary on this web page, one makes the attempt of ‘doing something’ although better alternatives exist.

    As Winston Churchill remarked, murikans will do the right thing, once they have tried everything else.

  12. @Tim Dunn,

    “Airline execs know they want masks gone; ”

    Well not the case with everyone, as per the article just few days ago about TAP Portugal CEO wanting masks on planes to stay permanent!

  13. I know everybody is tired of this but how did science get political?
    So many selfish people out there,
    so many alternate reality people.
    This virus was the icing on the cake to the previous presidents term because it brought out all the “others.” Now what must be done?
    To the barricades!

  14. Masks do nothing, never have done anything. Just a control and comply issue.
    Just waiting for the next emergency to apoear, the sniffles have about run their course. Oh ya, Ukraine an issue we should not even be involved with.

  15. 11+ hours of wearing a mask for international travel is not fun. I don’t believe they add value on planes any more if people have to prove they’re Vax’d to fly. I hope this expires on March 18th ..

  16. Shawn Olson no one is saying YOU can’t still wear a mask. Just don’t force it on the rest of us. Personal choice has unfortunately become a bad word in the USA. We need to change that.

  17. @Coolah, Masks do seem to help with Mountain Cedar allergies. Two hours of that on Sunday was enough to give me a headache all day Monday. So, I wore my N95 when I went for a walk today, and so far so good. So, masks do work. They also keep fiberglass out of my lungs when I go to the attic. And so far, I’ve not gotten Covid, but that’s probably more luck than masks being 100% effective, as it’s nearly impossible to get one to fully seal.

  18. John H
    N95 masks are not required on aircraft and it is doubtful that the majority of people wear them.
    when there are allowances to remove any mask to drink or take quick bites of food, the whole purpose is destroyed. Do you think doctors and nurses remove their masks in surgery for even a nanosecond?

  19. If you think that this whole mask mandate issue is following the science and not political, consider why it took the administration until the waning of the Covid pandemic to provide N95 masks to the American public. We knew right from the very start of the mask mandates that allowing loose weave cloth masks was the mark of insanity.

  20. The primary way that masks work is, if you have covid, and cough or sneeze or whatever, the mask prevents you from projecting the germs. Likewise, it stops you touching your nose or mouth and then smearing your germs onto nearby surfaces.

    It’s like a baby wearing a diaper- sure, some urine gets out, but on the whole most of it stays in there and doesn’t soak up your pants.

    Wearing the mask yourself to prevent catching germs? Not so effective, because of all the gaps, etc. So in Japan, when you saw people wearing masks prior to covid, they did so because they felt a little ill, and did not want to spread their germs to others. It wasn’t to avoid catching something from someone else.

  21. @George: It’s not really either/or. Masking helps on either end.

    Here’s how we fit-test N95 masks in my hospital: You put on the mask. You put a loose plastic hood over your head. The tester squirts an aerosol of a concentrated saccharin solution into the hood. If you can taste sweetness, the test fails. If you can pass the test, it’s an indication that you’re wearing the mask properly, without gaps. Properly-fit N95 masks have protected healthcare workers from stuff like tuberculosis and chicken pox long before Covid came around.

    But on the other hand, if a patient with a respiratory illness needs to go outside of his/her room, the patient has to wear a mask to lower transmission.

    I agree that a poorly-worn mask does more to prevent other people than to prevent the wearer. But if you seriously want to protect yourself, you can achieve this by wearing an effective mask correctly, without cooperation from other people.

    It’s just a complicated, nuanced situation.

  22. I hope they stay. Keep you’re germs/viruses/plagues to yourself while we’re crammed in an airplane. Canada gets it, so does Europe, Australia, and the rest of the civilized world. The US is clearly the outlier amongst it peers, as is the case when it comes to so many things (i.e. education, safety, common sense, etc). If a wealthy gulf countries are considered 2nd world, it’s time to put the US in with that lot.

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