June 10, 2023

Like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, the federal mask mandate on airlines dissolved on April 18.

After 15 months, millions of flyers masked against the threat of COVID-19, and almost 10,000 unruly passenger incidents, all it took was a Florida Federal judge’s ruling that the CDC lacked legal authority to enforce the mandate. And just like that, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines said, enough already. Masks are now optional at airports and on aircraft.

In a bombshell 59-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division concluded that the masking regulation enacted by the Centers for Disease Control in February 2021 “exceeds the CDC’s statutory authority and violates the procedure required for agency rulemaking…Accordingly, the Court vacates the Mandate and remands it to the CDC.”

Although The Points Guy called the Biden Administration response a “temporary” removal of the mask mandate, the administration will not challenge the ruling, as Uber, Lyft, Amtrak and others rush to dump the mandate.

So despite critics penning stories like “Trump’s Worst Judge Just Made Travel a MAGA Nightmare,” Judge Mizelle’s ruling vacating the mandate seems likely to stick.

The sudden end of mandatory masking does raise questions. Does it provide an “all clear/COVID is over” signal to potential passengers? Will more people fly now that they can remove their masks? Or will large numbers of so-called COVIDians (a “person who is obsessed with coronavirus, and is in favor of all kinds of restrictive measures”) boycott travel?

If the stock market is any indicator, Wall Street seems to believe that the end of the mask mandate will boost airlines. Most airline stocks rose the day after the ruling, with American (AAL) up over 5% and United (UAL) up over 4%. Jet Blue (JBLU) was up 3%, while Delta (DAL), Alaska (ALK) and Southwest (LUV) were all up around 2%.

Still, Savanthi Syth, CFA, the Managing Director of the Global Airlines practice at Raymond James & Associates, says “I don’t think [ending the mask mandate] will have a material impact on demand, positively or negatively. It will clearly benefit passenger comfort on longer-haul trips more.”

Helane Becker, Analyst at Cowen and Company, said “While many may be sad to see the mask go it will be left up to the individual. Masks will be required on longer flights for now and people will do whatever they are comfortable doing.”

“We are already above pre pandemic leisure travel levels.” Becker pointed out. Quietly, the airline industry has roared back from what many (including Warren Buffett) thought was a near-death experience in 2020, when 16,000 jetliners were parked. Considering this, Beker does not believe the end of the mask mandate “will change the way people travel.”

The true game changer will be if the airlines get another item on their wish list. That would be the end of the requirement for pre-departure COVID-19 testing before passengers (including Americans) can fly to the U.S.

“The big difference will be if the testing mandate goes away. That will open the floodgates for international travel,” Becker says. “That removes the uncertainty and people will travel again.”

Syth agrees, “The bigger benefit to travel demand will be the elimination of pre-entry testing requirement many countries have already announced or implemented, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia.

Still, the judge’s decision overturning the mask mandate turned the travel industry upside down. The CDC had just extended the mask mandate for another two weeks, despite the grumbling of passengers and the airlines. “It’s time to let the masks go and let people decide,” Ed Bastien, the CEO of Delta Airlines, said.

Not surprisingly, Delta seemed almost ebullient when the end suddenly arrived. “Effective immediately, masks are optional for all airport employees, crew members and customers inside U.S. airports and on board all aircraft domestically, as well as on most international flights…We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” a Delta statement said. Even that statement proved controversial, and in the ensuing pile-on, Delta backed away from it.

Other airlines, like Jet Blue, United, Southwest, and American announced the end of mandatory masking as well. Alaska Airlines said, “Effective immediately, all Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air guests and employees have the option to wear a mask while traveling in the U.S. and at work. Masks are no longer required for travel and will be optional.”

Southwest said, “We encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing…We will continue to monitor public health guidance, and federal requirements, while always keeping safety as our uncompromising priority.”

In its statement, American Airlines said, “We are deeply grateful to our team members for their enforcement of the mandate.”

The airlines were excited, and passengers and some health experts were relieved. “It’s been about time to lift this mandate because people have been going indoors to all kinds of crowded events—religious services, concerts, restaurants, you name it—without masks,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine told Prevention. “There’s been a lot of question in the public health community about why we have to wear masks on aircraft.”

Others were concerned. In a press briefing that included the Easter Bunny, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “So this is obviously a disappointing decision. The CDC continues recommending wearing a mask in public transit.”

“Unquestionably, masking helps,” David Freedman, president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, told the NY Times. “Air travel is a continuum of activity, it’s not just sitting in your seat on the airplane,” Dr. Freedman said, noting he plans to continue to wear an N95 mask.

But efforts to put the COVID mask requirement genie back in the bottle appears unlikely. Just as the Super Bowl marked the collapse of mask mandates in the US, the judge’s ruling has effectively ended the COVID-19 mask era on airlines and other public transportation.

And ironically, considering the deep unpopularity of mask mandates, many believe that a Biden Administration reluctant to drop them was bailed out by a judge appointed by President Trump.

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