Business Travel Won’t Return Until Mask Mandates No Longer Needed

I’m not interested in debating masks on planes. Let’s just stipulate,

  • Planes are safer environments than indoor congregant settings like restaurants and bars where masks often aren’t required
  • But masks probably provide some protective benefit
  • Though masks that meet the requirement (such as cloth masks) do very little, if you want to protect yourself and others then get a better mask

Early in the pandemic masks gave people confidence to travel, before there were vaccines and as many or as good treatments for Covid-19. You’re in close quarters with other people, so it’s comforting to see everyone else wearing a mask even if you find it uncomfortable to maintain throughout a long travel day.

Outgoing American Airlines CEO Doug Parker made a point, though, in his opening remarks to employees after completing the carrier’s fourth quarter earnings call this past Thursday. His remarks suggested that masks are an impediment to return of business travel. The full return to normal is therefore going to necessarily involve lifting masking requirements.

Dr. Fauci and other Biden administration insiders have argued that masking should be required on planes forever. I’ve suggested that the political realities are that requirements need to be lifted before the midterm elections. Airlines, politicians and the world need to return to normal so there’ll be a drive to ‘declare victory’ over the virus.

While it’s far from guaranteed that Omicron represents the end of the pandemic, there’s a good chance that it does with higher levels of background immunity, hopefully variant-specific or multivariant vaccine boosers, and highly effective treatments like Paxlovid.

Here’s how Parker explained masks – a continued requirement due to the virus surge – and how it affects business travel (emphasis mine),

We need business travel to get back to where it was. It wants to…every time it starts to look like the world’s going to get back to normal, business travel starts ticking up and it starts ticking up pretty quickly – as it did in July, as it started to do in November.

What happens though is anything that gets people to where we all have to wear a mask again, and for companies that have not yet brought people back to work, they delay that. It’s been delayed yet again for a lot of companies around the United States. It’ll come back, and when it does business return, and [we’ll be profitable].

Masks here are a stand-in for normalcy. Parker sees normal around the corner. Of course last month he had to walk back a suggestion to Congress that masks aren’t necessary on planes.

I am personally fine with masks but let’s not pretend they do more than they do. I wanted to wear them during flu season before all of this because I don’t want to get sick, I have too much going on for the forced downtime. And while I don’t love masks, I don’t hate them either. They’re mild discomfort, and mild public health benefit, ultimately a distraction from fixing our institutions that have failed us during the pandemic like FDA and CDC, and from doubling down on testing, vaccines, and treatment.

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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Comments

  1. Not sure why “business” people would not travel just because they had to wear masks on a plane. Much bigger concern should be the meeting in the indoor space they are going to, eating at restaurants, etc, not getting there.

  2. The industries that appear to have the hardest hits from the virus are universities and business travel. The costs charged pre-Covid for a pre-Covid experience are not justified in a reduced service situation. For both of those industries, people are successfully using video and then questioning if they need in person any longer and if so, what price they are willing to pay for it. Lack of service and mask regulations decrease the desire to travel.

  3. Masks are a security blanket for true believers and a political identity symbol for Democrats.

    The other 60% of us are collectively over it.

  4. The problem w/ mask mandates is that they dictate the way EVERYONE behaves and not just those that want to protect their own health. Masks in a real airline environment as worn by the general public have never been proven to reduce transmission. The mask mandate is based on theory and practice from other environments and other types of masks. If cutting transmission really mattered, surgical quality masks would be required and they could not be removed for food or drink; do you think that surgeons remove their masks for a drink in the middle of surgery?

    Masks convey sickness, I said that more than a year ago on this site, and business travel will not return until the mask mandate and the associate covid mandates are removed as evidenced by the fact that business travel has been stronger in parts of the country with weaker covid requirements.

    The best hope for covid restrictions and mandates falling in the US come from Europe where a growing number of countries are dramatically and rapidly walking away from mandates they have had for two years.

  5. Why the fuss? Last 5 flights I was on in business in the last 3 months, the only people wearing masks after being seated were my wife and me.
    Nobody cares for whatever reason.
    No judgment. Just experience.

  6. Good luck.

    The whiners on the Left will shake in their boots thinking someone without a mask will cause them to immediately evaporate.

    The whiners on the Right will claim their rights are still be infringed and they shouldn’t have to wear a mask at all.

    Which party is in charge?

    Masks aren’t going anywhere for a while.

  7. We have have packed indoor arenas at sporting events where masks aren’t required, same deal with restaurants. But on an airplane with HEPA filters masks continue to be mandatory. Someone make sense of that for me.

  8. I remember when the famous English model was videoed wiping down her seat and surfaces with disinfectant before a flight and people thought she was absolutely mad. Now that sort of insanity has been normalized.

    Mask requirements have now been withdrawn on flights to, from, and within the UK. Unfortunately BA and Virgin continue them for now, but that’s a step forward. Masks are anti-s

  9. Masks should be optional everywhere. Businesses don’t really want travel to return. They are saving a ton on remote employees, zoom meetings, and such but the first businesses to return to in-person calls is going to gain market share in many cases regardless of masks.

  10. Predictably imbecilic comments by Parker.

    It is no coincidence that the UK, which most of the time has no mask mandates, has the biggest death toll in Europe.

    I’m a regular business traveller from Australia to the USA, partway through my first trip since Australia reopened.

    For me the biggest risk to my business trip is testing positive prior to my long haul departure in either direction, and domestic flights are the biggest threat within that.

    I’m already routing through Hawaii due to their stricter mask and vaccination mandates. I don’t go to bars or restaurants until I pass my final PCR 72 hours prior to my return, and I only attend distanced meetings.

    Forget the rights and wrongs – I simply can’t afford to catch Covid from the unmasked public.

    Does Parker understand that business travellers can’t afford to take unnecessary risks of infection?

  11. I’m all in favor of people who want to use masks, double, triple or quadruple I don’t care what you do. Just don’t force it on me who wish to lead a normal life. Go ahead and jab/booster all you like, I don’t care. Just don’t force me to do it. Until then, I have ZERO desire to travel anywhere that forces the above.

    And…….Guess what! The more I do without traveling, restaurants, plays, opera, stadiums whatever that forces me to do something…. the more I find I don’t miss those things. I couldn’t care less if I never visit another part of this world if it continues to play that way. Plenty of other places to live and enjoy my life with like-minded people AND spend my money in that environment.

    The mainstream narrative is breaking down! Kudos to England and Massachusetts! It’s only a matter of time before it is done. Will see what we are left with at that point. Future health of many may paint the horrors of what was done to them. Hopefully not but nobody knows.

    That last article posted about a 2 year old getting kicked off….Sickening how f’kd up it has become and continues. If only our pilots had some balls to all stay home for a few days. That would change things real quick! Just like the Canadian truckers threatened to do did this week. How quickly people in charge caved in and reversed their decision!!!

  12. If the UK has lifted mandates but BA and VA still require them it’s not a law right? So you don’t have to wear them IMO

  13. I working in a very large consulting firm and I would day about 5/10 of the consulting staff say they chose to not do business travel due to masking. I know it sounds silly to some people but our company books us business class flights every Monday-Thursday for the purpose of being able to focus and work throughout the flight. The mask is a massive obstacle to getting our teams back on the road right now.

  14. @DavidF:

    “I simply can’t afford to catch Covid from the unmasked public.”

    Then stay home. Don’t go out in public. Don’t go to restaurants, grocery stores, or shopping malls.

    Your first mistake is in thinking you are going to catch COVID if someone is not wearing a mask. It is doubtful that masks did much good anyway with Wuhan COVID or Delta. It is almost certain they do no good at all with Omicron.

    But if you feel safer . . .

    After all, hasn’t your Aussie government effectively kept everyone locked down for two-years because they are afraid?

  15. It hasn’t affected our business travel much at all. I flew 40,000 miles in 2020 and 80,000 in 2021 and will probably hit 100k in 2022. I realize my mileage is miniscule in comparison to many. However our business has not slowed down at all.

  16. I think that the real impediment to business travel returning is the fact that companies have realized that much more business than previously realized can be conducted without travel . COVID has forced business owners to take a deep dive into all aspects of their respective businesses. Many have come to the conclusion that reducing travel does not necessarily affect efficiency or task completion.

    Why send someone on the road for a meeting that can be accomplished via a video or conference call ? Why take someone out of the office for 2 days for a meeting that lasts just a couple of hours ? And let’s not forget that the actual need for large corporate offices is being questioned in certain areas . Remote work , for some , is highly effective and efficient .

    So , a dip in business travel can be blamed on mask requirements to prove certain narratives but it’s also possible that the days of extraordinary business travel are over . I was 200,000 mile per year all premium class traveler for years and I loved it . That being said , I can easily see how a significant amount of work that I completed could be done via video call/ remote access

  17. 1KBrad’s response to DavidF is exactly the response everyone should have to the people who are still afraid – stay home! Also, David, are you over 75, do you have pre-existing conditions (well defined ones) that contrite to your risk? are you unvaccinated? If you answered ‘no’ to those questions, what statistical/rational thinking leads you to believe you are at risk? It’s been two year, we know very well who gets seriously ill and/or dies, so if you don’t fall into one of those specific categories, what’s the problem?

    Here are two headlines that were side by site on TPG’s page today:

    “CDC, State Department warns Americans “do not travel” to the Caribbean & other nations due to COVID-19”

    “WHO says it’s time to lift COVID-19 restrictions calling travel bans “ineffective””

    Anyone hiding behind ‘science’ should get their head out of the sand – there is no scientific consensus on the virus, it is purely political and economic at this point. Everyone has a doctor or health official who says something that fits their beliefs. Unfortunately, with the democrats in power (thankfully only for another 9 months it seems), they will continue to use this to keep Biden away from the press for ‘safety reasons’ and to ridiculously expand ‘voting rights’ to non-citizens and mail-ins that can’t be proven to get themselves more votes. FB, Twitter and most other on-line media (far left) want to perpetuate this because it keeps people at home using their services and supports the previously mentioned left agenda.

    If this were really about stopping deaths or public safety then we would ban alcohol and all opioid production, we would make using a gun in a crime an automatic life sentence, a DUI mandatory 10 years, we would ban all unhealthy foods….point is, nobody actually cares enough about health or safety to do anything about the ongoing issues, so why should we believe they care about it in regards to the virus.

  18. @maxie that was the narrative in 2020, but last year all our clients have been requiring us back in person. We no longer travel every single week Jan-dec. But every other week minimum on the road Mon-Thu did return, this is why the removal of the mask will push the workers back into those trips further.

  19. @DavidF So you concede that we don’t need to wear masks to avoid real illness. Rather, you want the rest of us to alter our lives and mask up so that we don’t impact your business trips which in turn have been impacted by senseless Covid rules. Why not fix those stupid rules instead of trying to “fix” the people?

  20. Removing the mask rule will stimulate business travel? NO KIDDING. After two very uncomfortable flights at Christmas, I’m canceling everything until the mask rule is GONE. It’s insane. If you’re worried about your health, DON’T TRAVEL.

  21. To reply to the comments above:

    1. I’m a doctor. The scientific evidence is clear: N95/KN95/KF94/P2/FFP2 masks massively reduce transmission and until the pandemic ends, they should be universal.

    2. Countries like the US – with its low vaccination rate and lack of vaccine passports – and UK – where almost all restrictions were axed – have succeeded only in having appalling death numbers and economic ruin. Florida has a smaller population than Australia, but 30 times more deaths.

    3. Both business travellers and tourists need certainty that they will be able to return to work on time. Both the Australian and US governments require negative Covid tests to fly internationally – so not having mask or vaccine mandates turns international travel into Russian Roulette.

    Normal life requires the pandemic to either end or be aggressively suppressed through masking and vaccination.

    Abandoning public health measures because you are bored or stupid or macho – or all three – just prolongs the disruption and damage.

  22. a) if you don’t wear a mask – stay home
    b) if you don’t want to vaccinated and boosted – stay home
    Unless everyone is boosted and provides a negative test masks are a needed instrument to limit risks
    Masks, Vaccine and Science are non political.

  23. I really dont get this “let’s not pretend mask do more than they do” trope. I see 10 patients every day with omicron and having been doing so for weeks. I wear an n95 and haven’t gotten Covid. Either I am extraordinarily lucky, or a well fitted high quality mask does a lot.

  24. @Maxie Dean:

    “I think that the real impediment to business travel returning is the fact that companies have realized that much more business than previously realized can be conducted without travel . COVID has forced business owners to take a deep dive into all aspects of their respective businesses. Many have come to the conclusion that reducing travel does not necessarily affect efficiency or task completion.”

    They said the same thing after 9/11.

    While it sounds great in theory, it doesn’t work well in the real world.

    Client relationships require personal interaction. Video is a very poor third place alternative that may work to some extent with existing clients, but generates no loyalty with new clients.

    Significant business travel will be back once the hysteria subsides.

  25. @Bk – you say all the clients required the consultants to be in person last year. how did / do the 5/10 consultants who refuse to travel get away with it

  26. @Marc:

    Show me a real world study, not some theoretical results in a lab, that masks help against Omicron.

    Don’t buy into the nonsense just because you are told something. Make them prove it to you.

  27. You aren’t sitting 6″ from a total stranger who may have covid in a restaurant.

    Your argument is fallacious.

  28. @I’m a Doctor….

    I wish I had a five dollars (use to be a nickel but with inflation….) for every person who says “I’m a Doctor” and then proceeds to throw out ridiculous statements clearly showing they have no idea of the real facts. So thankful I don’t have any of these “doctors” in my life!

  29. This thread has been very entertaining/disheartening.
    Oh, and occasionally cumenters
    moke fun at Gury fer his speling butt I cee lots more ov mistakoos (purr capitah) in the cumments…..

  30. So Douggie says masks have to go but he’ll cave to the unions so we get coach-like service in International First? Asshat.

  31. lol…business travel will continue to thrive where it’s absolutely necessary. Like if something needs to be hands on fixed or looked at.

    What is dead is OPM flying for meetings, especially in sales and consulting.

    Masks have nothing to do with this. Just that corporate overlords have figured out that a lot of their minions work can be done remotely.

  32. @greg
    Hybrid model. Senior members/partners travel weekly with some of the consulting team that’s comfortable on the road. While the ones that find the travel a hassle are able to provide support for the projects remotely. We’re basically told this is an open for the junior staff until things are fully “normal”, which then it’ll be a requirement to be on the road ( less days/month than 2019 though)

  33. The vulnerable and hysterical people have two options they didn’t have at the beginning of the pandemic: vaccines and plentiful N95 masks. It’s time to go back to personal responsibility for those that this virus is not kind to. They have options now. Let the rest of us get back to normal

    That said, masks truly have become the MAGA hats of the leftists.

  34. @DavidF,

    By saying “masks massively reduce transmission and until the pandemic ends, they should be universal.”, if N95s happen to be partially effective at slowing transmission, it only serves to prolong and drag out the pandemic for a longer period. If whole population has to eventually catch omicron why not let it run its course, get it over with faster which is already happening without temporary band aids and senseless restrictions

  35. @Jorge Paez – Wow, did you call that one right. You were Casandra and they still did it.

  36. Business traveler here in finance. Pre COVID did $200K of airfare p.a., all purchased J/F. Last two years were maybe $25K per year.

    The main reasons I am not traveling much now are: 1) not as much need, because clients don’t expect it or don’t want to meet; 2) urban luxury hotels are broken and too annoying to deal with; 3) too many travel pain points like long Uber waits, restaurants not functioning well, long waits at Clear, etc.; 4) higher possibility of having to deal with badly behaved people, stressed/ill people, or inexperienced people on planes or otherwise; 5) private planes are an option.

    masks on planes don’t have much to do with it, but I don’t really care one way or another as to whether airlines/government mandate masks. Compared to broken Four Seasons, masks aren’t really top of mind for me.

  37. LOL in general @davidF – on your #2 comment specifically – the economic ruin isn’t because of the virus, it’s because of the overly strict policies that continue to keep people out of work. It’s not just economic ruin, a generation of underprivileged children who lost 2 years of critical school while their wealthier counterparts did not suffer nearly as much. Which do you think is worse for the future of our country, some already old and unhealthy people dying (or getting sick) or damage we did to those kids for the rest of their lives.

    So you’re a doctor (lol again) – let me ask you this…while you did a nice job of mentioning 2 somewhat accurate stats in #2, do you care to break those down any farther or do you want to leave it at the populations are apples to apples comparisons and the virus impact all people equally even though Florida has an entirely different demographic make-up (age, overall health, etc…) and density distribution you think it’s fair to compare them to Australia? People who throw out stats with no context are worthless – why don’t you speak about the bias of the virus and how we create a policy that addresses those at risk while letting the rest of us just live our lives? Finally, on that point, look at the stats today – you can talk about the numbers leading up to mid-2021 as much as you want, but do us all a favor and talk about them as they stand now.

    As a side note, the science you refer to is not universal as experts all over the world have different opinions. The CDC is constantly changing it’s guidance, the Biden administration is, well, I can’t believe it, but more incompetent than any republican (or democratic) administration I can think of, so there’s no clear directive from them other than whatever suits the party interest – actually not even the party interest – just the administration’s.

    All in all, there’s no actual reason to continue any restrictions, if someone is worried they can just stay home or wear a mask. If you wear a mask and have been vaccinated it shouldn’t matter what anybody else does? What are your thoughts on that last statement David?

  38. @Luke
    The whole population does not have to catch each strain – only around 25% of people catch any strain. Each person who I necessarily catches any given variant is just an economic liability for society.

    @Charlie M – I live in an Australian state with the same demographics and climate as Florida. Our population of 5 million, with a larger percentage live in towns and cities, had had less than 100 deaths. Florida has 21 million people and currently has had 64,000 deaths.

    The reason mask requirements and recommendations keep changing is because the amount of circulating virus changes. The experts are not flip-flopping, rather the situation constantly evolves.

    Not wearing a mask in 2022 is the precise equivalent of being gay in 1985 and refusing to wear a condom. People are exercising their “individual choice” to endanger other better and more responsible people. Except at least the reckless ones in 1985 were only endangering people who could choose not to get infected.

    I find these comments – particularly Doug Parker’s – extraordinary from residents of a country which is going to rack up a million dead by May 2022.

  39. Way to go USA! 3,866 preventable deaths yesterday and climbing,

    Just a bunch of shallow self-centered individualistic snowflake whiners who can’t even put on a mask to protect each other.

    Shameful.

  40. DavidF,
    don’t even bother to quote the mortality stats for covid because we now know that they have been inflated throughout the pandemic. Even Florida and New York’s governors (oposite sides of the aisle) have told hospitals to stop lumping every person that tests positive in a hospital into the same covid positive or covid death groups. People have said from the beginning that the US was overcounting covid – driven largely because the US government decided at the beginning of the pandemic to add extra compensation for covid patients so why wouldn’t they call everything covid that they could – and that is exactly what is now being confirmed.

    You enjoy Australia. We’ll enjoy the US of A.

  41. @DavidF:

    I appreciate that you came back because I realize some of the comments have been harsh. Thank you.

    Some serious questions:

    The U.S. has 800,000 dead attributable to Covid. Is that 800,000 dead FROM Covid, or 800,000 dead who HAD Covid?

    It is interesting that Dr. Fauchi makes this distinction when talking about the hospitalizations of children.

    Secondly, California and New York imposed mask mandates and lock-downs, yet their numbers are not dramatically different than those in Florida and Texas. Why?

    Thirdly, how is Oz doing with Omicron?

    Regards.

  42. This premise is ridiculous. As Gary well knows business leaders are conservative by nature. They don’t want to be sued when employees travel, get sick and maybe die. So the natural instinct is to restrict travel until we are more certain that all vaccinated travelers will not get seriously ill.

    In addition business travel is not possible to most of Asia and in other places it is difficult to even hold meetings due to state and county restrictions. Not to mention conventions. So there is no point in traveling.

    Finally, and most importantly there is still a significant % of employees who are afraid to travel, even though it is by and large safe to do so. Those people will quit, which would be counterproductive for business.

    Business travel will return when our leaders admit that the virus is here to stay and stop shutting down schools and offices. I expect this will occur when hospitals are empty and the unvax are either deceased or gain herd immunity.

    Masks on airplanes are a minor inconvenience, just like water confiscation by security.

  43. Davidf – If you’re a doctor, I’m Dr Fauci

    And a lab in China didnt create the virus

    Continue to live in fear out there..

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