Major airlines and airports are rushing to drop their mask requirements following a federal court ruling that struck down the federal government’s mask mandate for planes, trains and buses.
Every major U.S. airline announced that masks are now optional shortly after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said Monday evening that it would no longer enforce its mandate in accordance with the ruling.
The big four carriers, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, quickly nixed their mask requirements Monday night, with some passengers reporting hearing about the policy change mid-flight.
“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,” Delta 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.”
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that the company encourages passengers “to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing” and added that it would continue to implement air filtration that the company says removes most airborne particles.
“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,” American Airlines said in a statement.
JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Allegiant Airlines also announced that masks will be optional on their flights following the TSA announcement.
The quick switch defied expectations from the nation’s largest flight attendant union, which said it would take 24 to 48 hours to implement new masking rules. Airports and airplanes didn’t have time to take down signs stating that the mandate was still in effect on Monday night, prompting confusion among travelers.
“Communications to customers and in-airport signage and announcements will be updated to share that masking is now optional — this may take a short period of time,” Delta said.
Airlines noted that masks will still be required for flights to and from locations that still enforce a mask mandate, including Canada. Several international carriers, such as British Airways, had already dropped mask requirements in recent weeks as European nations eased restrictions.
Many major airports lifted mask restrictions as well, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and LaGuardia Airport, though Philadelphia International Airport said masks are still required, citing the city’s mask mandate.
Federal Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a recent Trump appointee, struck down the mask mandate Monday, finding that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) failed to follow the rulemaking processes and provide a sufficient justification for enacting the mandate.
The CDC recently extended the mask mandate for 15 days, through May 3, as the agency took time to examine the impact of the BA.2 omicron subvariant.
Airlines were aggressively lobbying the Biden administration to drop the mask mandate, arguing that airplanes are safer than restaurants when it comes to mitigating COVID-19 spread and stating that the industry couldn’t make a full recovery until restrictions are lifted.
The change comes as airports experience a surge in travelers. The TSA on Monday screened nearly 2.3 million people, roughly 10 percent lower than the same period in 2019.