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International airlines are dropping mask mandates. Are U.S. carriers next?

U.S. airline CEOs now want mandates axed, which leaves the future of masks on planes in question

(iStock/Washington Post Illustration)
5 min

As many countries lift coronavirus restrictions and entry rules for travelers, some international airlines are also easing requirements for the journey.

Dutch airline KLM will no longer enforce a face mask requirement onboard starting this week, despite government rules in the Netherlands, along with other carriers. The Netherlands lifted its mask mandate for public transit Wednesday, but it still requires them for air travel.

KLM told RTL News in a statement that the move to not lift the mandate on air travel was “disappointing.” The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the decision.

British airlines to drop mask mandates as U.K. lifts remaining travel restrictions

Last week, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways also announced plans to drop their mask requirements, after Jet2 became the first British airline to remove the requirement. The British government lifted mandates on transportation in February.

Other carriers, such as easyJet have made similar announcements for U.K. travel, and major travel hubs such as London’s Heathrow Airport, as well as Danish airports, recently scrapped their face-covering rules. As those changes happen with some frequency now, you may be wondering which countries and airlines will be next.

“I think we’ll start seeing the dominoes fall in Europe,” said Zach Griff, senior reporter at the Points Guy, noting that as more countries drop their mask mandates, carriers will probably follow suit. He is keeping an eye on places such as France, Spain and Germany — countries with “big flag carriers to see what happens on those flights.”

Large global carriers, however, could be slower to ease those rules than others, in part because of the complexity of operating in numerous places, which may or may not have mask policies in effect. “An airline such as Emirates or Etihad or Qatar, with as many flights as they have … that could be more of a burden on them,” he said.

Airline CEOs call for end to mask mandate

On Wednesday, airline executives, including chief executives of Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, urged President Biden in a letter to end the federal mask mandate and other coronavirus travel requirements, which they said “are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment.” The mask rule was recently extended to April 18.

The letter went on: “The high level of immunity in the U.S., availability of high-quality masks for those who wish to use them, hospital-grade cabin air, widespread vaccine availability and newly available therapeutics provide a strong foundation for the Administration to lift the mask mandate and predeparture testing requirement. We urge you to do so now.”

The U.S. Travel Association and the union representing Southwest Airlines flight attendants have issued similar letters. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month that it would work alongside agencies including the Transportation Security Administration to determine warranted changes to the rule. The agency said in a statement: “This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science,” but did not give more information on the reason for extending the requirement.

When the mask mandate does drop, Michael Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, expects that airlines will respond quickly. “Once the federal mandate is gone, it will take at least 15 minutes for the airlines to comply,” he said.

Griff said Canada could act faster than the United States, given its recent decision to drop testing requirements for vaccinated travelers. “So, if they’re ahead of the U.S. in terms of covid testing, it’s possible that they’ll also be ahead of the U.S. in terms of dropping the mask mandate,” Griff said.

Jen Moyse, vice president of product for TripIt from Concur, said in an email that “government officials are under intense pressure from the travel industry” to get rid of it.

The airline industry contends that the coronavirus-related risk to passengers is very low, which has been a subject of debate (independent researchers have said it’s not high but noted that it’s not possible to assess with complete accuracy). “So, the airlines are eager to drop those policies, certainly the ones in Europe, to coincide with the dropping of mask mandates elsewhere in different countries,” Griff said.

Why cloth masks are on some airlines' no-fly list

Griff said that although some airline employees are similarly ready to see the rule gone, others fear that such a change could compromise their own safety, but he added that enforcing it is “exhausting” for workers. Sometimes it has been a catalyst for conflict, with public-facing employees such as flight attendants facing confrontations with unruly passengers over health and safety requirements.

With April 18 less than a month away, Griff noted that a recent surge in infections in Western Europe could deter the United States from dropping its mandate. Moyse said that whether the policy is extended depends on what happens over the next several weeks. “While covid fatigue is real, most mandates have been driven by the current and forecasted infection rates,” she said.

But eventually lifting the rule could have a positive impact on demand, according to Boyd. He said he thinks the change might encourage more people to fly, as the masks can make air travel less comfortable and add one more thing to think about. “There’s enough hassles with flying already,” he said.