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Should We Now Ditch Face Masks Mandates On Airplanes And Leave it to Personal Choice?

Should We Now Ditch Face Masks Mandates On Airplanes And Leave it to Personal Choice?

a woman wearing a mask and yellow vest pointing at an object

We’re now more than 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic and whether you’re vaccinated or not, it’s pretty safe to say that pandemic fatigue has well and truly set in for many people. Just as you think there is light at the end of the tunnel, another twist or variant in this case seems to emerge and send the world several steps back.

Thankfully, mass vaccination and new treatments like monoclonal antibody infusions are undoubtedly helping to change the course of the pandemic and significantly reducing hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19.

people sitting in a plane with a mask on

These interventions are helping to return people’s freedoms and allowed a growing number of countries to move to a ‘new normal’ or in some cases return to a semblance of the old normal with the majority of pandemic-era restrictions lifted.

Even face mask rules are being rolled back in more and more countries despite the fact that COVID-19 is becoming endemic. The United States may have jumped the gun but Denmark, Sweden and England have all lifted masking rules over the summer and even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considering a similar move.

It’s not that public health experts and governments don’t trust the effectiveness of face masks – a growing body of evidence proves that masking can protect the wearer, as well as the people around them. It’s just that with vaccines and advanced treatments, the risk profile is changing and becomes more about the individual than the collective.

It’s important to remember that in April 2020 when governments first started recommending the use of face masks, the world was facing a severe shortage of personal protective equipment. The best face masks, like N95 and FFP2 masks, had to be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.

Even surgical face masks were in short supply so the public had to make do with cloth masks. These masks weren’t made or tested to provide a minimum filtration performance so we all had to wear a mask to protect one another.

But 18-months later, with mountains of high-quality filtering face masks readily available for healthcare professionals and the public alike, many people continue to use ineffective reusable cloth masks.

a man wearing a face mask on a plane

Disposable filtering face masks empower individuals to protect themselves instead of relying on everyone around them to wear a face mask. So if that’s the case, can we now drop collective mask rules in most settings, including airplanes?

There are some good reasons why we should at least consider it. Not least is the fact that masking rules are behind a dangerous surge in unruly and disruptive passenger incidents that are making the skies anything but friendly.

At last count, the Federal Aviation Administration had recorded 4,626 unruly passenger incidents since the start of 2021 – nearly three-quarters of those incidents are connected to President Biden’s mask mandate.

Is now the time to ask the most vulnerable, those who remain susceptible to COVID-19 even after full vaccination, to protect themselves by wearing a high-performance filtering face mask and allow everyone else around them to go maskless if they choose?

After all, you never know when an anti-masker might show up on your flight or whether your seatmate might actually be exempt from wearing a face mask. In many ways, the onus is already on you as an individual to protect yourself rather than relying on those around you.

Then there’s the issue of food and drink. Masking rules work when everyone is wearing a face mask but no one is wearing a mask when airlines serve passengers food and drink all at the same time. This is, even more, an issue now that airlines are returning to pre-pandemic levels of service.

a group of people wearing face masks walking with luggage
Ringo Chiu /

Thankfully, the airline industry claims the air onboard is remarkably safe because it is passed through hospital-grade HEPA filters and is continually refreshed at a rate of more than 10 times that of an average office building.

Vaccine mandates and pre-departure testing could make the flying experience even safer but the airline industry, in most cases, doesn’t support either of those measures. Instead, airlines want masking rules to remain in force as they see that as the least disruptive pandemic response.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes that vaccinated travellers shouldn’t face any travel restrictions, while unvaccinated passengers should be allowed to travel freely through COVID-19 testing.

Willie Walsh, director general of IATA, has called on governments to remove pandemic restrictions at the earliest possible opportunity but masking isn’t going anywhere soon. And that’s a position that most travellers say they support.

In a recent survey commissioned by IATA, 86 per cent of travellers said they felt safe onboard owing to pandemic measures introduced by airlines, while 78 per cent said mask-wearing allowed them to travel safely even with the threat of the delta variant.

Masking onboard airplanes remains a critical safety measure recommended by the UN’s aviation body and the World Health Organization (WHO). We should get used to collectively masking onboard planes for some time to come.

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