The federal face mask mandate has certainly had the ability to divide opinion but, up until now, the mandate had proven stubbornly resilient, surviving multiple legal attempts to quash it and managing several extensions even as COVID-19 cases started to fall or a growing number of other countries removed their own face mask mandates.
When the end did eventually come, it turned out to be a messy unravelling rather than an orderly transition that would give airlines and other public transport providers time to prepare. As Florida District Judge Kathryn Mizelle’s decision started to sink in, the Biden administration finally admitted defeat, ordering the TSA to give up enforcement of the mandate as it has done for more than a year.
Airlines were initially in a state of limbo. The first hurried communication from the likes of United Airlines, as well as its flight attendants union, was to urge calm and patience. Carry on as before, continue to wear a face mask and wait for further information they begged. How long that might be the case was anyone’s guess.
It was Alaska Airlines, however, that took the plunge first. The Seattle-based airline, confident by now that the White House had no other option but to rescind the mandate, told passengers and crew that face masks were now optional… effective immediately.
In fact, the airline was in such a rush to make its employees and customers aware that face masks were no longer compulsory that it sent alerts via a special ground to air messaging system to inform pilots of the news mid-flight. There would be absolutely no confusion. The mandate was over. Pilots were instructed to make an announcement at the earliest opportunity.
Video shared by social media users showed passengers and crew ripping off their face masks as they sat in their seats, whooping and cheering at the news.
Delta Air Lines soon followed, although the carrier initially cautioned that passengers might receive conflicting information and asked its customers to follow crew instructions even if it conflicted with what, by now, the rest of us knew. Other airlines followed suit in quick succession – United, American, JetBlue, Frontier, and eventually, Spirit.
The federal face mask mandate was over.
At least, it was over on domestic flights. The situation is a little messier on international routes and the hurried way in which the mandate actually ended is going to cause a fair amount of confusion over the coming days.
Just look at some of the messaging from various U.S. carriers. As of Tuesday, United Airlines says face masks will only be optional on “select” international routes, whereas Delta claims mask rules will be lifted on “most” international flights. The way this plays out is going to depend on how rival U.S. carriers interpret international rules.
What we do know for certain is that flights to certain countries will be mask-free because all mask rules, including on public transport have been lifted in these destinations. The list is subject to change at short notice but examples include England, Scotland, Switzerland, Croatia, Norway and Jamaica.
But for other countries, the rules are subject to a little interpretation. For example, at the time of publication, while France requires masks to be worn on airplanes, the question is whether a U.S. registered plane, operated by a U.S. airline in international airspace is required to enforce that mandate?
We can look to England and Norway where airlines have faced this very same dilemma for answers. Unfortunately, we get even more confusion.
British Airways and easyJet have decided to enforce face mask compliance based on the local rules in the destination they are flying to or from. So a domestic flight in England is a face mask optional route but, using France as an example again, face masks are still compulsory.
Yet fellow British airlines Jet2 and TUI Airways don’t enforce mask rules on any of their European routes regardless of local rules. The same has occurred in Norway where Norwegian has abandoned face mask enforcement altogether, whereas SAS observes local rules based on the destination.
We can already see a similar policy gap opening up between United and Delta. United looks like it will abide by local rules, whereas Delta doesn’t seem to think these rules apply to its flights. It remains to be seen, however, whether the U.S. airline industry will be able to reach a consensus, and if so, how long that might take.
The situation is, however, a little more clear cut on non-U.S. airlines where face mask rules remain in force locally. Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have made no changes to their onboard mask rules on U.S.-bound flights and customers are still required to wear a mask (although enforcement is patchy compared to U.S. carriers).
The same situation will face passengers heading to or from the United States with the likes of Air France, Qantas or Air Canada. Technically, you’re also meant to wear a face mask when flying with Dutch flag carrier KLM, although in protest at its government’s decision to single out air travel as the only place face masks must be worn, KLM no longer enforces masking rules.
A little patience, therefore, is going to be required over the coming days as airlines get to grips with the demise of the federal face mask mandate. If you’re flying internationally, it might be a very good idea to pack some face masks and be prepared to wear them.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.