Dropped mask mandate on airlines: ‘Everyone really doesn’t know what to do,’ flight attendant union boss says

Adriana Belmonte

·Senior Editor

Thu, 21 April 2022, 9:37 pm

Earlier this week, a ruling by a federal judge that overturned the federal mask mandate on public transit shocked people around the country.

Since the ruling went into effect immediately, flight attendants and travelers were caught off guard.

“Everyone doesn’t really know what to do because this was not rolled out in a way that you would normally shift a policy change in a coordinated way through all of aviation,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Aviation rules are set up for safety. The mask mandate was about safety and health, public health. Really there should have been a period over which there was a transition.”

Commuters with and without face mask sit inside the Miami International Airport on April 19, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP)
Commuters with and without face mask sit inside the Miami International Airport on April 19, 2022. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP)

The news was so sudden that upon the announcement, some fliers took their masks off mid-flight as they cheered at the update while others found themselves suddenly vulnerable as they had no time to prepare for this change.

“It certainly was not fair within that immediate time period where the policy changed essentially mid-flight,” Nelson said. “People who were making decisions to fly with young children who hadn’t been vaccinated yet or people who are immunocompromised or flying to another person who is medically at higher risk, this was unfair because the rules changed on them mid-flight and they had nowhere to go. This creates more conflict.”

Face masks became ‘a political issue’

Since March 2020, when the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force, flight attendants have had to grapple with unruly passengers refusing to comply with federal mask mandates.

In 2021, a total of 1,099 investigations were initiated against unruly air passengers, an all-time high. In one incident in December, a flight attendant was punched in the face after asking a passenger to wear her face mask properly over her nose. There have been 370 investigations initiated so far in 2022, according to FAA data.

“It’s been very difficult,” Nelson said. “We’ve been called all kinds of names. Other people are just having a hard time complying, so the constant reminder and then the bickering and the undermining all the time, it’s been very difficult and in some cases has risen to violence, although I want to be clear that most of the violent cases and egregious cases have nothing to do with masks at all.”

According to Nelson, the issue was not from masks themselves but rather from how politicized mask-wearing became.

“It was made a political issue,” she said. “It was made a statement. People were told that their individual freedoms were being interfered with.”

Nelson explained that the federal judge’s ruling comes with caveats for flight attendants. While many flight attendants are relieved they don’t have to come into potential conflict by reminding passengers to put on their masks anymore, there are some who still fear for their own personal health and safety as COVID cases rise due to the latest variant.

Airline passengers sit during a American Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Denver on April 19, 2022. AFP/Patrick T. FALLON
Airline passengers sit during a American Airlines flight operated by SkyWest Airlines from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Denver on April 19, 2022. AFP/Patrick T. FALLON

“This is our workspace,” Nelson said. “Part of the problem here is that it’s one thing if everyone getting on the plane is vaccinated, if they’re testing, if they’re doing all the things to try to mitigate the risk of spreading this virus.”

“But as this virus is on the rise, there are people who have been led to believe that this is a selfish choice and that you don’t have to think about anyone else,” she continued. “People are knowingly coming to the airport sick and then not wearing a mask. It’s those concerns in this confined space where everyone has to travel together and where the people that I represent are going into this workspace where there is a problem.”

‘There are still requirements’

While the mask mandate was overturned on a federal level for public transit, some individual entities — like airports, airlines, bus companies, and transit stations — still have mask rules in place, which has the potential to create confusion for travelers going forward.

For example, a traveler’s point of origin may not require a face mask, but their destination could, meaning they will need to comply once they arrive.

“If you can look up where you’re going ahead of time to see what the rules are in your space, you’re going to know what to expect,” Nelson said, adding: “We are really pushing airlines, airports, the federal government, and everyone to get together here to have a consistent message about what travelers need to know, what they should expect, and what they should prepare to do because there are still requirements to wear those masks, even though the federal mask mandate went away.”

A traveler walks through terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, April 14, 2022. (Photo by Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A traveler walks through terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, April 14, 2022. (Photo by Ting Shen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

In the meantime, many flight attendants are still reminding passengers of CDC recommendations, even if they’re no longer enforcing a mask mandate.

“What flight attendants are saying and what we have been saying, while the mask mandate was in place, now in this new, uncertain time, we’re saying to everyone, ‘Please be very clear about what the rules are,’” Nelson said. “Help people understand what to expect, why they should expect that, and what we also recommend for your best safety. So we should always continue to put out that the CDC continues to recommend that people wear a mask on public transportation for their own protection and for the protection of all of the public.”

Going forward, Nelson sees two types of travelers: Those who still want a mask mandate in place and those who are happy to see it finally gone.

“That’s essentially where our flight attendants sit as well,” she said. “So there are going to be people who are very concerned about getting on planes.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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