Federal Judge Strikes Down Airline Mask Mandate

The Biden administration’s federal transportation mask mandate, covering air, rail, business and related travel, was struck down in federal court on Monday. Here’s the decision.

I laid out the argument back in March 2021 why the federal mask mandate exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority. The Supreme Court clearly articulated these same principles when it overturned the CDC eviction ban.

While various cases against the mask mandate have wound through the courts, I didn’t expect a ruling on the merits since the regulation was set to expire today but last week extended – for just two weeks.

  • Judge Mizelle ruled the CDC lacked the authority to impose the mask mandate under the Public Health Services Act of 1944, which provides for powers involving “inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination [and] destruction” in order to limit disease transmission.

  • The mandate was deemed “arbitrary and capricious” since it didn’t sufficiently explain its reasoning (think: why on planes and not elsewhere, why cloth masks).

  • The rule was sent back to the CDC for further deliberation.

The CEOs of major U.S. airlines have all asked for the mask mandate to be lifted along with testing requirements to fly to the U.S. The Senate has voted to end the mask mandate but the House will not take up the matter, so President Biden won’t be in a position of having to veto that legislation.

Congress has certainly shown itself capable of voting on masks, and could have voted to give this power to CDC. It did not. However this federal district court ruling may not be the legal end of the discussion, and the mandate will likely lapse and the case becomes moot before reaching ultimate adjudication.

Update: As an absolute non-expert here (and some of my readers are), I’d imagine that (1) mask rules still apply on planes, airline rules haven’t changed; (2) the administration appeals and lets the mandate expire (assuming to massive spike in cases or hospitalizations over the next two weeks), which moots the case, avoiding risk of a higher court precedent limiting federal power.

Although commenter Erik makes the point that if the administration doesn’t appeal, just says ‘it was going to end in two weeks anyway’ they can then say they couldn’t extend it because the courts took their power to do so away. Then they don’t bear the risk of an awkward look, having removed a restriction, if cases go back up.

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. I always wear a mask. It wasn’t requirement in early 2020, but I had masks so I wore them. I usually catch a cold after every other set of flights, even in summer. But in the last 26 months, after dozens of flights, I have not had one cold. Maybe the Japanese are right. Wear a mask and you won’t catch respiratory illnesses.

    But I think the situation where British Airways and EasyJet suspended mask wearing and subsequently had high cancellations because of sick calls is a better example of what MAY happen. All the US carrier flight cancelations during the Christmas holidays were blamed on the Omicron variant. Now that we have 2 variants that are even more infectious than Omicron…well who knows what will happen? Just remember that no one is invincible to Covid!

  2. I am curious, if there are any attorneys here, if the judge’s decision is legally sound. I’ve heard competing opinions.

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