The TSA’s transportation mask rule is set to expire May 11. While there’s no good justification for a federal mask rule once there’s enough vaccine that anyone who wants protection can have it (and the vaccines currently in use in the U.S. even substantially reduce the risk of someone being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus) there almost no chance that this happens.
The CDC language off of which the TSA’s rule is based is in place indefinitely until specifically rescinded or the pandemic is declared over by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.
While the federal mask rule may not even be legal, it’s almost certain to be extended.
Sara Nelson, head of AFA-CWA which represents flight attendants at United Airlines and 16 other carriers, wants mask rules extended through end of September. Live and Let’s Fly believes that she wants mask rules to become permanent. In Congressional testimony she compared mask requirements with inflight smoking bans, TSA liquid rules, and requirements to turn off cell phones as restrictions that Americans have learned to live with.
Nelson was a huge supporter of government subsidies for airlines during the pandemic, preferring state support of airlines rather than revenue from customers. Indeed she advocated a ban on leisure travel. Let’s look more closely at the logic of the requirements, however.
- Initially mask rules were a way for airlines to make customers confident enough to buy tickets. Masks were an inconvenience to a passenger, but knowing everyone else would be masked made the purchase decision easier. JetBlue did it first and others quickly followed.
- Now airlines see mask rules as a way to convince government to allow travel (arguing that flying becomes less of a transmission risk for Covid-19).
- Most masks people wear aren’t actually protective. Lufthansa actually requires passengers to wear a useful mask while the U.S. and airlines do not.
- But vaccines provide incredible protection against the virus – not just against catching it, but in the rare cases someone does, against having serious consequences. And any American 16 years or older who wants a vaccine can get one, becoming largely protected and minimizing virus spread as well. (Children are generally even at less risk than vaccinated adults.)
- As a general matter those not vaccinated who travel are making a choice to expose themselves. And even if they run into someone that’s infected, and if they pick up the virus, they’re only then reasonably likely to spread it to others who have chosen not to become vaccinated.
And modest virus spread that may occur no longer poses risk of overwhelming hospitals and compromising care.
I’ve been a huge supporter of masks since the beginning of the pandemic, while recognizing that they’re not panaceas and that most people should be wearing better masks when they travel than they do. When the federal government was still recommending against masking, I argued that flight attendants should be allowed to wear them. I was out ahead of Sara Nelson here. I also plan to continue wearing a mask when I travel during flu season.
However the need for a government mandate for domestic flights should be sunsetting. No doubt it will last longer than it should, because airlines are lobbying for it and union leaders are lobbying for it, and because public health officials are inherently cautious. My hope here is that it doesn’t become permanent, and that the desire of the Biden administration to declare victory over the pandemic will lead to an end to the order – maybe not this summer, but political realities dictate that it will be over before the 2022 midterm elections.