Inflight Mask Fights Will Rise This Winter. The New CDC Testing Rule Will Make It Worse.

Back in November I predicted that mask disputes on planes would become more common over the winter and that seems to becoming the case, at least based on social media reports and continued reporting from airlines on the number of people banned over masks. Even tiny Alaska Airlines is now over 300 passengers banned.

Starting January 26 the CDC will require all passengers flying to the U.S. to have received a negative Covid-19 test within 3 days of travel. For everything else that’s been written about the new requirement, it’s likely to accelerate mask disputes since everyone on board will have tested negative on flights to the U.S. already. For some passengers masks will feel like an unnecessary imposition.

There are three major reasons that passengers – some of whom object to masks to begin with – will become increasingly impatient with the rules to wear one.

  • The raging pandemic ironically means fewer people can spread the virus, some of whom won’t want to mask up. Once someone has had Covid-19 and recovers from it, they are highly unlikely to get it and spread it for a period of time – that’s yet to be determined but that is almost certainly on average longer than a year. Over 22 million Americans have tested positive for the virus. The CDC said in the fall that we’re catching only 1 in 8 cases. This would suggest half the country has already had the virus. (Although only those with positive tests would know it with some degree of certainty.)

  • Some people who have been vaccinated will see mask requirements as theater. As more and more people get vaccinated they’ll wonder why they’re required to wear masks. BioNTech’s CEO says that they’ll have data in late January or early February laying out the extent to which their mRNA vaccine doesn’t just prevent symptomatic Covid but is also sterilizing such that it prevents spread. Most experts believe it will reduce spread, but we need data to demonstrate that this is true, and to show the extent of the effect.

    To the extent that vaccines are sterilizing, some vaccinated passengers will see mask requirements as theater since it’s not providing source control (and masks won’t be protecting the wearer after a 95% effective vaccination either).

  • New CDC testing rules for inbound international flights will make people feel masks are unnecessary. If everyone on flights to the U.S. has had a negative Covid-19 test, as required by the CDC (starting January 26), many passengers will be wondering why they need to wear a mask? Of course,

    • Having had a negative test within 3 days doesn’t mean not having the virus during travel
    • Mask rules are imposed by the airlines and not the CDC, so the CDC’s rule doesn’t affect the requirement
    • Airlines aren’t going to make flight-by-flight exceptions (required on outbound flights from the U.S. but not return flights to the U.S.). So the mask rules stay.

The viral video from Sunday’s American Airlines flight AA2198 from Charlotte to Washington National airport, a maskless woman describing the requirement as tyranny actually said “I already had the virus and I already had the vaccine and people need to stand up! This is tyranny and this is wrong! This is wrong!”

Here’s the woman immediately following that explanation,

There’s no reasonable way for airlines and other passengers to know who is and who is not a risk of spread. That’s why the norm is going to be mask-wearing, even for those that aren’t a significant risk of spread, until the pandemic is under control – and perhaps longer to the extent mask-wearing is imposed as a federal mandate by the incoming Biden administration, since government mandates tend to take longer to be removed even when they’re no longer needed. And that’s going to mean more conflict.

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, 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. Do you suppose the airlines will start charging for this “in flight entertainment” as more and more fights break out? The whole country is going crazy! I had to go to the bank today to send a wire and the branch I use is in a supermarket. Although I don’t believe in masks I do wear them where requested. While I’m standing there a lady strolled by who appeared to be of the high risk age and no mask to be seen.

  2. Gary: Thinking about travel to France in July. Both my wife and I will have had both doses of the vaccine by mid-February, and the vaccinations will be documented.

    I assume a negative COVID test will still be required, as will a mask. Anything else I need to think about before booking?

  3. Imagine that you are a flight attendant. You wake up in a pretty good mood. But, then you realize that you are assigned the dreaded flight from DFW to MCO. Your heart starts to race as you remember your last time on this route. The two year-old who wouldn’t wear a mask. Or the thirty-two year-old who bitched and moaned and wouldn’t keep his/her mask on and called you a Nazi because you were just trying to keep people safe and obey the rules.

    Let’s be real, folks. It’s understandable why FA’s get jumpy and angry pretty fast. They have to constantly deal with children of all ages. Whether it’s a kid who’s really two, or an adult who insists like acting like a child. Unfortunately, there are spoiled brats of all ages who just want to be noticed. Now Colorado can boast of an adult child named Lauren Boebert who obviously does not get enough attention at home so she tries to get attention everywhere by breaking all the rules.

    Spoiled children everywhere.

  4. My biggest problem is with the 2 year old requirement for masks. That’s just unreasonable to think that’s even possible. And to kick people off flights Bc their 2 year old won’t comply consistently?

    5? Sure. But you can’t get a 2 year old to do anything consistently for over ten minutes.

    Flying with a toddler is stressful enough already.

  5. If you have proof of vaccination, I think a mask is unnecessary and maybe even counter-productive. If you offer being able to go maskless again as a reward/benefit of getting the vaccine, it will encourage more people to take the vaccine. If the vaccine doesnt allow for these restrictions to be removed then there is no point to the vaccines.

  6. If “This would suggest half the country has already had the virus.” is true as well as post infection immunity and inability to spread wouldn’t you think the numbers would start to have dropped?

  7. Retired Lawyer, Wesley – I have had my 2nd vaccination. I can tell you how trivial it would be to copy this CDC card I’m looking at.

    We really need an authoritative registry, but every person (right and left) has deep resentment of being tracked, despite what our federal government already does. We need to get people to accept that privacy died ages ago, and then we can move on.

  8. We’ve had mask mandates, lockdowns and testing for most of the pandemic and it’s only getting worse. There is one way forward, incentivise the vaccine.

    Early reports of up to 50% of healthcare workers rejecting vaccines is very disheartening.

    We need real incentives. The vaccinated should have freedom of travel abroad and mask waivers. Plus all future stimulus checks require proof of vaccination.

    This won’t be popular so I’ll save you all the trouble…

    Yes, some will fake the documents. Prosecute them.

    It won’t immediately slow the spread. It’s already out of control.

    Other travelers may be nervous seeing the unmasked. This is eventual (and prevalent) anyway and might motivate more people to take the vaccine.

    The same experts who recommend masks say we need at least 80% vaccinated or recovered to hit herd immunity. No chance we hit that without real incentives or continued mass spread. Take your pick.

    But you’ve gotta ask yourself, do we really want to be in the same spot we are now 6, 12, 24+ months from now? Vaccines. 80%. Tell me how we get there otherwise? Short term pain. Long term gain.

  9. Vaccination does not prevent infection. The studies were to determine reduction of symptomatic infection. We already have cases of vaccinated people getting infected. Proof of vaccination alone won’t end mask requirements. I can guarantee that. Nothing but dramatically decreased rates of infection will change the paradigm.

  10. Simple idea…. why don’t people that want to wear face diapers to save them from the cooties just wear them. People who don’t want to play the cooties game just do what they want. Then everybody’s happy… guess that makes too much sense though.

  11. I have a LAX-DXB-MLE FC on Emirates 22 September and I am hopeful my vaccine scar will be nicely healed by then and they will welcome us with open arms as long as we have the vaccination proof and credit cards! But my wife and I will be wearing Hermes masks just in case!

  12. Exactly, everyone should be electronically tracked both for vaccine passport and contact tracing for spread. They should designate one state for people that don’t want to be tracked and send all there, just like sending people to Siberia!

    All these people crying about freedom and privacy are the reason this has partially continued since we don’t have a nationwide tracking tool that logs every business you go in to, etc. Your iPhone already logs all this location data so we’re just talking about putting it to good use.

    We shouldn’t let people make their own opt out decisions as they will likely make the wrong decisions and most people are not experts on disease. Most people will make self centered decisions. I don’t see the public benefit to allowing people this freedom of avoiding contact tracing and vaccination.

    By this time next year, we should require vaccination to enter any business unless you have a doctors order that the vaccine is contraindicated; for instance there may be some in the population alergic to vaccines. But this would have to be certified in a national electronic database.

  13. So @onexmarine who doesn’t believe in masks (because science is too hard for him) is shocked when a fellow non mask believer passes him by.
    Oh the irony

  14. It is with some embarrassment that, when I looked at the pic on the header of this story, my first thought was not masks.

    I have been locked down alone for too long I think.

  15. Hello idiot..may I introduce you to Mr. $35K fine? Sorry, I meant she/their/it to be politically correct, Regardless, the fine is still $35K…that’s U.S. dollars if you are confused.

  16. Hate to break it to you, @ JustSaying, but Hermès doesn’t make masks, so whatever you have is either homemade or a knockoff.

  17. Proof of vaccination doesn’t mean you don’t have the virus. The vaccine is not 100%. That is why mask use will be required until herd immunity is achieved. The most recent news I’ve read about immunity after getting covid comes from GB, where the estimate was ~5 months.

  18. Vaccine only prevents severe disease, not infection. While it likely reduces transmission it will not eliminate it. The virus may eventually be mostly eliminated when the R0 gets small enough, although it will likely mutate at some point. Anything to reduce R0 which includes masking and the vaccine helps, so masking requirements will be around for the next 3-5 years maybe longer. People need to learn to live with that.

  19. “For some passengers masks will feel like an unnecessary imposition.” Who cares what some covidiot thinks? Honesty wear a mask or don’t get on the plane. 100% behind airlines banning covidiots. US keeps setting record daily deaths brought to you in large part by idiots who refuse to wear masks and travel all over the place. They will never do the right thing. They are selfish people. Its time for society to limit their ability to cause further harm.

  20. To quote Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, “It’s not that hard—just wear the damn masks. #MasksOnMaryland”

  21. For those who think that vaccination only prevents symptoms – the results of the studies appear to show that transmission is somewhat reduced, but not eliminated, after vaccination. See,

    @Andrew – My wife and I also plan to have the COVID vaccination record entered into our “yellow books” at time of vaccination. I’m not so much worried about counterfeiting (almost anything can be counterfeited with enough work or purchased with enough money) but I know that international health regimes are more comfortable with this documentation when they see it. And, it provides a central record of all our vaccinations (yellow fever, hep A and B, typhoid, etc.)

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