Major U.S. airlines, including Delta and United, tossed out mask requirements on Monday after a federal judge struck down the Biden administration's transportation mask mandate, giving customers and staff the first respite from the coronavirus restrictions in nearly two years.
After U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Florida ruled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's travel mask mandate was unlawful, the White House said the CDC’s public transportation mask order was no longer in effect. It said the Transportation Security Administration would not enforce the rule on public transport and transportation hubs while the ruling is reviewed.
The CDC's mask mandate was enacted in February 2021 and most recently extended through May 3. However, airlines had their own requirements in place for almost two years.
The rollback on masks was met with an eruption of cheers and applause aboard a Delta flight from New York City to San Francisco when it was announced over the intercom, with one keen customer shouting “Finally!”
It may be a sigh of relief for some airlines that have grappled with over 7,100 unruly passenger reports in the skies since January 2021, the vast majority related to mask mandates, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
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Employees and customers “may continue wearing masks if they so choose,” under Delta Airlines' new policy unveiled Monday evening.
"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," the company said in a statement. "Thank you for your support in complying with the federal mask mandate and keeping each other, and our customers, safe during the pandemic."
United said, "Masks are no longer required on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s requirements) or at U.S. airports."
Alaska Airlines said “guests and employees have the option to wear a mask while traveling in the U.S. and at work.”
“While we love to see your smiling faces in the airport and on board, we respect your decision to keep using this added layer of protection,” the company said in a statement. “Above all, we hope you’ll treat each other with kindness and respect throughout the travel journey and beyond."
The airline touched on the topic of guests banned from traveling when the federal mask policy was in effect. “Based on our reports, we will have some guests whose behavior was particularly egregious who will remain banned, even after the mask policy is rescinded," it said.
JetBlue said “mask wearing will now be optional” and customers and crew are welcome to continue wearing them.
Those traveling internationally “should always have a mask with them in case they continue to be required at their destination," it said.
"Face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights,” American Airlines announced, noting that masks may still be required based on local ordinances and may differ when traveling to and from certain international locations.
“In keeping with our commitment to creating a welcoming environment for everyone who travels with us, customers and team members may choose to continue to wear masks at their own discretion.”
Southwest said employees and customers “will be able to choose whether they would like to wear a mask on flights," adding, “We encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing."
Southwest noted that it would continuing supporting travelers “by offering additional layers of protection” including its cabin air ventilation systems with HEPA air filtration.
"Masks are now optional on domestic flights, however, certain airports or countries may still require masks, so check the policy at your destination prior to departure and we’ll see you in the sky," Frontier airlines tweeted.
Mixed reactions at airports, ground systems
While the skies will see more flexible mask rules, on the ground, some rail and bus systems won't.
New York City's MTA system will keep masks in place under state regulations. The Bay Area's BART said face masks are required indoors pending review, noting the system "hasn’t made an official or final determination if a mask mandate will continue on BART."
Los Angeles' L.A. Metro removed the face mask requirement on the metro bus and rail system later on Tuesday, saying face masks “will now be strongly recommended, but no longer required.” Chicago’s CTA and Pace bus system also announced Tuesday evening that masks won’t be required on the public transit.
In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday morning masks won't be required on NJ Transit. Washington D.C.’s public transit agency WMATA also moved to make masks optional effective immediately Monday night.
Amtrak said passengers and employees are no longer required to wear masks on trains or in stations.
The Philadelphia International Airport said masks must still be worn inside the airport’s terminals in compliance with the governor’s indoor mask requirement.
San Francisco International Airport announced Tuesday afternoon that masks are now optional for guests and employees. Masks are also no longer required at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway International Airports after Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker lifted the state's travel mask mandate to “align with the ending of the enforcement of the federal mask mandate on public transportation.”