“I would like to see the cases come down again and see the last of the hotspots die out a bit more,” he added.
Airline executives say it’s time to lift mask mandates because they’re no longer needed in many other public settings, like restaurants and retail stores, where the risk of transmission is higher.
“It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on planes, but are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, although no of these places doesn’t have the air filtration protection system that airplanes do,” the CEOs of nearly a dozen airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue and United, wrote in their letter.
Potential “case explosion”
Air quality in airplanes is generally good because airplanes are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters that constantly recirculate fresh air into the cabin. But the risk of transmission would increase dramatically if most passengers, especially contagious people, stopped wearing masks.
Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that for most healthy Americans who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, removing face masks is unlikely. flights pose a serious risk. But the math changes if you’re sitting near someone infected with the disease.
“The air quality is good in an airplane. However, when you’re sitting side by side with someone who has a COVID infection, maybe someone 10 rows behind you won’t get it, but that won’t protect the person sitting next to you.” , Carnethon told CBS MoneyWatch.
“If you undo every mitigation strategy at the same time, you have great potential to see an explosion of cases, and that’s risky,” she added.
In terms of restoring confidence in air travel, Carnethon also said ending mask mandates could end up having the opposite effect of airlines.
“The reason they’re pushing to drop them are economic reasons which they believe would help drive travel, but they’re going to end up excluding a demographic that it’s not safe to be in an enclosed space without mask, including the elderly and adults who are immunocompromised,” she said. “From a business perspective, I don’t know if it will produce the economic gains that they think if people at risk make the decision not to travel.”
A burden on airline staff
In pushing to drop in-flight virus rules, airline CEOs are also pointing to the toll the enforcement of pandemic health measures has taken on airline staff. This includes ticket agents tasked with checking COVID-19 test results and flight attendants actually assigned the role of mask maintainers, which has resulted in altercations with unruly passengers who refused to mask up.
“It’s not a job they’re trained for and puts them through the daily challenges of frustrated customers. This, in turn, harms their own well-being,” the CEOs said.
Indeed, irritable passengers who refused to comply with mask mandates have been a challenge for flight attendants.
“It was hard enough to be a flight attendant, but then having to be a bouncer on top of that and doing it 30,000 feet in the air, frankly, that’s too much to ask,” said Scott Keyes, a flight expert. and founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a website that finds deals on airline tickets for its members, told CBS MoneyWatch. “There have been so many disruptions and incidents of air rage, and I think a lot of that can be attributed to these rules – people are bristling at having to wear masks and other people are not wearing their masks properly. masks. I think once that’s not a rule, we’ll probably see a lot less.
A better solution?
Keyes believes eliminating the requirement that international travelers present a negative COVID-19 test result would have a more significant effect on passenger travel decisions, given that testing can be inconvenient and a result testing positive could mean having to quarantine overseas.
“You cannot take a home test. You should devote a significant portion of the last day of your trip to getting a negative test. And God forbid you get an infection and you’re stuck for a while – it dampens people’s enthusiasm for international travel,” he said.
It’s also partly why he believes international travel has yet to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels.
“The testing requirement prevents many people from taking trips that might otherwise have been taken,” Keyes said.
Carri Chan, a professor of decisions, risk and operations at Columbia Business School, agreed that the testing requirement has been a bigger barrier to travel than the mask mandate.
“Certainly for international flights coming back to the United States, there are people who are worried about the financial ramifications of not being able to come back if they test positive,” she told CBS MoneyWatch. . She also said the lifting of COVID-19 precautions could dampen travel demand from families with young children who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“That could potentially impact demand in another way,” she said. “I think removing the mask mandate is likely to be more of a deterrent, whereas removing the testing requirement may likely increase demand.”