Mask Disputes On Planes Are Set To Skyrocket By Late Winter

Once so many people have either had Covid-19 or been vaccinated against it that it’s equally likely that someone is vulnerable to it as not, restrictions on those who aren’t vulnerable to the virus (and therefore cannot spread it) are going to be harder to maintain. We’re going to see more people rebelling against mask requirements on planes in late March than we’ve seen so far.

  • An increasing number of people have had the virus and aren’t immediately vulnerable to it. Far more people have had Covid-19 than official ‘confirmed’ cases suggest. Perhaps roughly 20% of the U.S. population has already had the virus, and more are getting it every day in record numbers.

  • Vaccines are coming. The Pfizer vaccine appears to be both safe and efficacious, and may receive an emergency use authorization before year end. Moderna has reported out data from its phase 3 trial as well, and it appears quite effective. There’s a good chance that AstraZeneca’s vaccine will be approved at least in Europe soon enough.

  • By late winter vaccines will add to the number of people who aren’t vulnerable. It will be many months, or even close to a year, before ‘everyone in the U.S. that wants to be vaccinated can be’. I’d expect vaccines to be available to many people though by early spring. Some people may even travel to the Mideast to get early access to a Chinese vaccine. A vaccine may not be totally effective, but most people that are vaccinated will act as though it is.

Between people who have had the virus recently, and those who have been vaccinated against it, we could be looking at anywhere between one third to one half of the population by late winter.

It doesn’t matter than not everyone who has had the virus will retain full immunity. Most people do for a reasonable period of time, or else we’d have seen far more re-infections than we have. Even when antibodies are no longer detectable in a Covid patient, their t-cells will generally prompt the creation of antibodies if re-exposed to the virus. In any case many cases will have been quite recent due to the current uncontrolled spread of the virus.

When perhaps 40% of the population isn’t vulnerable to Covid-19, and thus can’t spread the virus either, will they still wear masks – when doing so is effectively theater?

There’s a solidarity element to being ‘all in this together’ and it’s not possible for anyone to know whether someone else has had the virus or been vaccinated. Until now we’ve assumed ‘everyone is a risk’ even though that isn’t quite correct. But it’s been reasonably good odds, since only a small portion of the population has had the virus, we don’t know ex ante who may have cross-immunity from exposure to other coronaviruses, and there’s been no vaccine.

Soon enough half of people may not be at risk. Do we still shame people not wearing masks when half of people don’t need to, except for symbolic reasons or because it’s inefficient to sort who should be wearing one and who does need to?

Make no mistake, I expect mask requirements to remain in space in late March and early April. And I support those, even if masks aren’t as prophylactic as they’re sometimes made out to be, since they do seem to provide some protection against spread.

However I expect that an increasingly number of people, part of the group that’s either had the virus or been vaccinated, will rebel against further restrictions on their behavior when they aren’t a risk to others any longer.

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. Good news for non-maskers, their personal vehicle will still be an alternative form of transportation should they be non-compliant with an airline’s mask rules

  2. Yes, you may need to wear a mask on a plane even if you don’t think you need one. It’s such a small inconvenience. People are literally dying Why is this such a big deal to some people?

  3. I’d go one step further and say the people most likely to fly are also the people most likely to have been previously infected since their risk tolerance is much higher than someone who has avoided travel.

    Much like lockdowns require people being willing to stay home mask requirements on planes require a willingness to follow the rules.

    Airlines may remove and/or ban the occasional passenger. But what if half the flight removes their mask after the door closes? And it continues to happen? Airlines won’t divert every flight and ban half their customers.

    Will be an interesting few months. I’ll be on a beach somewhere south of the border with beer in hand enjoying the show.

  4. People will need masks for at least another 16 months. Get used to it. Those who are reckless public are committing attempted manslaughter.

  5. I have been top tier elite traveler for over 20 years but have not flown for 8 months simply cause I won’t wear a mask and put up with reduced service. You raise an interesting point. At least the airline mask mandates can be eliminated overnight. All these people clamoring for a Federal mandate better be wary of what they wish for cause they may get it. If the Feds put in a mandate it may be many months or even years before the mandate is lifted. I used to fly even when it was faster to drive but I have now taken to driving exclusively having visited 9 states in the last 6 months. I want to fly again sooner than later.

  6. @Fcflyer – we haven’t seen that data yet, it may well be neutralizing. It’s expected to reduce spread a great deal in any case. However that misses the point. People are going to act as though a vaccine is perfectly protective and a reason not to worry about taking precautions. They won’t feel they need to wear a mask. So many will find the inconvenience too annoying and push back.

    And ironically we’ll likely get a nationwide transportation mask mandate from a new Biden administration right as we’re on the cusp of no longer needing one (and that mandate will last past when it is no longer *actually* needed) and that will further create conflict.

  7. this will come down to economics – when borders open up next year – and the virus is in steep decline due to vaccines and immunity per above – airlines will make a determination that if mask requirements impact their int’l long haul business revenue enough – they won’t require them – everything else is noise

  8. Just wear the damn mask. What the hell is wrong with people that they won’t take such simple action to beat this pandemic?

  9. I’m recently recovered from a (thankfully) minor COVID experience. I only got tested because I lost taste and smell and ran a minor fever (mid upper 99s). I’m relieved and excited that I can visit my elderly parents in the Florida Keys at Christmas without worrying about giving them COVID or getting COVID during travel or in Florida. I’ve also just booked a trip to the Galapagos during the winter and am excited to be back in the travel “game.”

    I screen capped my positive COVID test results in case I ever needed or wanted to show someone I had the virus. However, I am not an asshole. I know I still need to wear a mask during travel simply because not everyone else knows I had and recovered from COVID and I’m not going to whip out my phone for every interaction. COVID is massively contagious–I have no idea how I got it–no one in my bubble has tested positive and I wasn’t in any high risk situations. If my mask “theater” can contribute to a culture of mask wearing (in the near term, not forever) in order to protect people who could get severely ill or even die then I am more than willing to do that. It really is just about being a kind and decent person.

  10. @derek

    “Attempted manslaughter”?!?!?!

    LOL!!!!! Are you [redacted] serious?????

    Take your internet law degree and shove it up your [redacted].

  11. You support mask wearing on airlines but you call it “theater”? You can’t have it both ways.

    It’s the airlines that make their rules and like now, if you don’t wear a mask you dont fly. Pretty easy to comprehend.

  12. My husband and I agree that we’ll probably continue wearing masks on planes once this is all over. It now seems crazy to be that close to strangers for hours at a time in a tightly confined indoor space. There are articles touting planes as low risk with their HEPA filters but I also regularly see articles showing affected rows from infected travelers. Back in March, Covid also spread on airplanes from returning cruise ship passengers.

  13. One issue to keep in mind is that immunized people can still be contagious on re infection for some period of time, depending on the exact vaccine and how it works. So even the vaccinated should wear a mask because they don’t know until more is known about vaccines over the longer term.

  14. Also a point of law. “Attempted manslaughter” does not exist. By definition manslaughter is an unintended death. It can be voluntary or involuntary, but there is no way to “attempt” manslaughter. If there’s no death there’s no manslaughter and if you intend to kill then it’s murder not manslaughter.

  15. Manslaughter, people are dying, please stop with the drama. The death rate is barley above a bad flu season and clearly affects the vulnerable in our population. If you people would stop watching CNN and actually take a minute to look at the published research you will see all of the so call “testing” is not worth the paper it is printed on. There is no scientific research, that has been peer reviewed that indicates mask wearing is stopping this virus. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t go out into public if you are symptomatic. End of story. Biden can issue and mandate he wants thank god the state’s can override.

  16. @ Gary, I’m agreeing with you on how people “act,” but @jimbo is correct on the science. That’s conclusive.

    I’ve already been vaccinated and specifically asked this question of the researchers. I can still be infectious which is why I’m not visiting family and I’m still wearing a mask.

    Which begs the second question. Will countries accept a vaccine certificate without a PCR test if someone who is vaccinated can still catch and spread COVID? TBD

  17. Maggie, if you choose to wear a mask from now on while flying is your choice, and I respect that choice, but I hope you will not impose your choice on those who do not share your belief.

    David, unfortunately Biden can mandate mask and other requirements for interstate travel and TSA, FAA, and other Federal agencies WILL enforce it on the public regardless of what state and local government think or do. Medical experts and government are risk averse so they will err to the longer term rather than lift a mandate when it is no longer justified. Plus once a Federal mandate is used; will it be used every time we have a bad flu season in the name of public health?
    Better to leave it in the hands of the airlines. More government control is what it will become once it intervenes.

  18. @ Mike — I respect you for choosing an alternative instead of disrespecting others. That is what adults do. If only more people would behave that way, the world would be a better place.

  19. @ Maggie — I am with you. I will see what tolerance level I have for extended mask wearing and will do it as much as I can, indefinitely. Hopefully this will also result in people not speaking to me when traveling alone. Before COVID, this was a tactic some people used to keep the seat next to them empty on Southwest!

  20. @Fcflyer – How did you get vaccinated? Even the CEO of Pfizer hasn’t gotten the vaccine yet and no vaccine has been approved under even emergency authorization.

  21. Global Pharma engineer here w/a vaccine maker. Vaccine Herd immunity in the US is going to take a year even w/high >90% protection which is astounding and close to the measles vaccine. That also takes into account a large part of the population takes it, which I believe is going to be a challenge (w/anti science, anti vaxxers, or ppl who don’t believe COVID is real) I have spoken w/many of them.
    That does not account for international travel where developing countries will lag behind, especially w/ a cold chain vaccine like Pfizer. We traveled extensively abroad before COVID/are in a high risk group so for me and hopefully others, while the mask is a small inconvenience, I hope the airlines, airports require it. No one knows when immunity wears off (Pfizer has a two year trial) and I wouldn’t want to be the 1st one to find out.

  22. @Bob – re-read what I wrote, you seem to have a problem not understanding simple arguments. As people START to get the vaccine,and they add to the many people that have had the virus, more and more people will refuse to wear masks.

    That’s not an epidemiology argument. That’s a human behavioral argument about how they will perceive there being a vaccine, how they’ll perceive their own risk after infection.

  23. @Jimbo even if some immunized people can become infectious after exposure, that won’t change that people will act as though they aren’t once they are vaccinated.

  24. For those who think that the primary risk of COVID-19 is old people and vulnerable people, let my neighbor be a case in point. He was a 45 year old male in excellent health and contracted COVID-19 in April 2020. He soon needed to be hospitalized, then moved to an ICU and put on a ventilator. He was on the ventilator for much of the next three months. His kidney (which had been fine) started to fail, so he had to go on dialysis. His weight dropped from 220 to 160 pounds. He finally turned the corner and started the road to recovery. I saw him a few days ago, and he says he feels like he went through hell and that he lost six months of his life.

  25. @Christian

    I volunteered for a trial (not saying which but it’s moderna or pfizer) which tests you multiple times for COVID. Independent of the trial, I took 2 antibody tests on two different testing platforms 4 weeks after the first injection. Both came back positive. I also experienced mild symptoms from the injections. Therefore, I got the vaccine and not a placebo. And I still mask up.

  26. It’s just a mask. So we have to wear it for a few months longer than some theoretical point that no one can know for certain where they are no longer effective. Get over it.

  27. There is no world in which I will wear a mask after getting the vaccine, and anyone who wants to test that theory is in for a bad day.

  28. You can still be a carrier if you have recovered from COVID-19 or received a vaccination. Wear the damn mask as an obligation to your fellow passengers. I can’t believe the selfishness of some of these respondents. And do the research before you spread your childishly selfish views on your personal rights.

  29. I am in Fla and my mom is 97 and in an assisted living facility. Residents are tested every two weeks and staff are tested when they come in for their shift. Last week they had two staff ck positive. The residents are back to staying in their room for a quarantine period. Only two weeks ago they had opened up visiting our family members for an hour once a week…….the first time since lock down went into effect in Feb/Mar. My mom has no problem not seeing any of her kids right now as she is afraid she will catch something. That is fine with me, but at some point we need to see our family. She has weathered the confinement well and is quite happy considering everything. I faithfully wear my mask whenever I go out so as to protect my mom and the other elderly in her facility. I am also a retired 35 year flight attendant, and so thankful not to be flying any longer. The flying public has changed from when I first started back in 1969. The “me” society is so selfish which is evidenced by the numerous removals and banned individuals. This attitude needs to be changed so we can all weather this turbulent time. Since my mom is in good health I want to keep her that way. I would say that 90% of the city residents do where a mask when they go out. We look at it as protecting our seniors and ourselves. If you do not want to protect yourself, fine, then pretend you are protecting your elderly family member and mask up. Vaccinate when it comes out and this will hopefully be over sooner rather than later. Thank you.

  30. If you’re not a threat, then you shouldn’t need to wear a mask just to make others “feel” better. Regulations should not be imposed because of feelings. Maybe we should put everyone in jail because some will commit a crime. All this for a 99.94% survival rate. What’s wrong with you people. Are you really Americans?

  31. How many people without mask do you see everyday? Almost no one, right? Why numbers of cases go up if everyone wears a mask? Maybe because they don’t help

  32. @Fcflyer Presumably you took part in the Phase 3 clinical trial? I am in the J&J Phase 3 trial myself and am curious how you know you got the actual vaccine rather than the placebo. My understanding is not all antibody tests target the spike protein so it’s a bit difficult to know if you were treated or you took the saline.

  33. CHRIS – the survival rate for those who actually CATCH it is more like 95-96% and a good number of those will have long term health problems. I choose not to take that risk. Would you?

  34. @CHRIS – the problem is it’s impossible for others to know who is a threat and who isn’t, a flight attendant cannot distinguish inflight so safety rules need to apply to everyone

  35. Dr. Leff assumes a non-reinfection science that is unproven despite 12 millions cases worldwide. How about Sweden?

    He’s quite correct on the rest-people will do whatever they have a mind to do. And vaccines will give them a great argument to not wear a mask, like a high stakes version of emotional support animals.

    And I can hear the howls already against whatever Biden does to try to do to keep Americans alive and well. “Don’t tread on me, and here’s why”.

  36. To all the anti-maskers in this thread – good news, you can be the champion of your own home unmasked once you get the vaccine, and/or think your anti-bodies are infallible.

    However, you won’t bet getting on that plane without one for a while, or even going into some of your favorite stores. Tough S, deal with it.

  37. Far better for air travelers to wear masks — even though there are credible data about their ineffectiveness — than not to and thus give the federal government a reason to impose a nationwide mandate.
    We’ve already seen how various governors, school administrators, and others in power have exploited their offices to impose mandates that do at least as much harm as good. Governors Cuomo of New York and Wolf of Pennsylvania are outstanding, egregious examples.
    I suspect few readers are satisfied with the operation of their state or the federal government. Why not use common sense and put up with a minor inconvenience (wearing a mask) rather than risk further power grabs? I submit that given government entitlements and blandishments many Americans have forgotten that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

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