How to Fly Safely Now That the Mask Mandate Has Been Abolished

A Mask Will Still Protect You, Even in a Sea of Smiling Faces

By Jonathan Spira on 19 April 2022
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To mask, or not to mask. That is the question on many travelers’ minds after Monday’s ruling by a federal judge that abruptly ended the U.S. mask mandate on planes and trains as well as all forms of mass transit.

Within hours of the judge’s ruling, all major airlines in the United States ended mandatory masking and some passengers were downright giddy about it.

At the same time, others were having panic attacks.

The news came as new coronavirus cases are on the rise again and masking is starting to return in some cities.  Philadelphia began mandatory indoor masking Monday and, that same day, New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, said it was being looked into.

What it boils down to is this: Is it safe to fly without a mask?

The answer is, it depends.

One thing is clear: Someone in an airplane in flight without a mask is less likely to contract Covid than someone in other indoor settings.

It’s quite well established that face masks work best when everyone in a room or an airplane has one on, but the lone wearer of a face covering would still benefit from one even when others go sans mask.

Even if you’re the only person on a plane or train who is wearing a mask, it will nonetheless offer substantial protection against infection.

It’s important to understand how face masks work: When an infected person, a carrier if you will, dons a mask, a large percentage of the infectious particles he exhales are trapped, stopping viral spread at the source.  When a healthy person wears a mask, it will stop a significant percentage of any infectious particles in the area from entering his respiratory system.

The airline industry maintains that flying may indeed be safer than other forms of indoor activities, in great part thanks to the aircraft’s high-efficiency particulate filtration systems, which can capture and remove the aerosols that carry the virus in the air.  Differently put, HEPA filters scrub the air that passes through them, removing these aerosols as well as other particulates. According to the International Air Transport Association, the air filtration system on a modern plane renews air inside the cabin once every three minutes, which is almost ten times as frequent as air circulates in an office building, even with the latest HVAC systems.

Just like on the ground, there’s always air that has yet to be filtered and therein lies the rub: That air could have aerosols from a nearby fellow passenger who is infected with the coronavirus.

This means that someone could contract the virus in such cases or from a contagious passenger moving about the cabin.

A bigger issue is that planes do not have their filtration systems switched on during boarding and deplaning (this is also the case during refueling stops, although these are uncommon nowadays).  As passengers enter the cabin and proceed to their seats, place their luggage in the overhead bins, and make themselves comfortable, the risk of infection increases.

An aircraft’s filtration systems, no matter how powerful, do passengers no good at all when passengers are lined up at the gate or on the jet bridge during boarding.

Meanwhile, it’s well known at this point that masks protect individuals who are carriers from spreading the disease (provided that person is wearing a high-quality mask, no cloth masks please!) and also protect those who wear them from contracting the virus from someone else.

Two studies conducted earlier in the pandemic and before more transmissible variants such as omicron and its highly contagious subvariants appeared on the scene seem to demonstrate the efficacy of such filtration systems.

A September 2020 study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine focusing on a long-haul flight operated by Emirates Airline between Dubai and Hong Kong found that there had been no cases of inflight-transmission, despite known positive cases having been on board.  Emirates, it should be noted, had a very strict masking policy at the time.

Another study, this published in March 2021 also in the Journal of Travel Medicine, found that a one-hour meal service during which masks might be removed in the course of a 12-hour flight would increase the risk of infection by 59% compared to the same flight where masks were kept on.

A later study published in the Journal of Air Transport Management in December 2021 found that the HEPA filters on a plane do not remove all of the risk, however.

Researchers at the University of Illinois found that passengers sitting in the same row or one row away from an individual who was a carrier still had a high risk of being infected through direct respiratory droplets and that wearing a mask reduced the risk of infection by 54%.

Those studies were conducted before vaccines became widespread and before better face masks such as N95 and FFP2 types were de rigueur.  They also took place before the world saw far more transmissible variants of the original coronavirus.

Nonetheless, it’s a wise move to remain masked for the entirety of a flight, perhaps just lowering your mask to eat a quick bite on a longer flight.  It’s also wise to board last to avoid being stuck in queues at the gate or on the jetbridge, and finally, it’s a good idea to get a seat as far forward as possible so that your time in the aircraft when the plane’s air filtration system is off is as short as possible.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)


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