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Will Masks Return to Airplanes? Everything You Need to Know

A court order has paused airplane masking requirements. The majority of Americans disagree.

an N95 mask
A Florida judge has vacated the CDC order for masking on all public transportation.
Sarah Tew/CNET
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US airplane masking requirements -- which were originally to expire on April 18 but were extended to May 3 -- have currently been paused due to a court decision. A Florida judge in the Eleventh Circuit Court ruled Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not followed proper procedure in issuing its order for masks on public transportation, originally issued in January 2021.

The federal mandate required travelers to wear masks on buses, subways, trains, ferries and other forms of public transit. And now that the requirement has ended, many airlines are no longer enforcing the mandate.

However, the federal government is appealing the court decision, and a new poll shows that a majority of Americans support a mask mandate for air travel.

We'll explain what's happening with the airplane mask mandate and the court order, including whether it may be reinstated. For more information, here's the latest on the BA.2 variant of COVID-19, how to find free COVID-19 antiviral pills and how to order more free COVID-19 tests. We'll update this story as new information develops.

Could the mask mandate be reinstated?

After the court ruling vacated the federal order, the Biden administration indicated it would fight the decision. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced that it would be filing an appeal.

The Biden administration told reporters on Tuesday that the Transportation Security Agency won't enforce the mask mandate while the court order is being reviewed. However, several transit companies have said they will continue to require masks.

The US has experienced a dramatic drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases since February, and political pressure to end the airplane mask mandate has grown -- the Senate passed a bill in March to eliminate transit mask requirements, with eight Democrats joining the yea votes.

An April 20 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 56% of Americans support mask requirements for "people traveling on airplanes, trains and other types of public transportation."

seven N95 masks lined up

It's still possible the mandate could be reinstated.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Which states sued to end the mask requirement?

Twenty-one states sued to end the mask mandate on public transit. All 21 states have Republican attorneys general. Here's the list: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Do flight attendants support the mask mandate?

Flight attendants as a group haven't taken a stance on whether or not to keep the mask mandate in place, the Association of Flight Attendants said. They are, however, in charge of enforcing the mandate, which means dealing with passengers refusing to comply.

A group of nine flight attendants from Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United filed a lawsuit in late March, alleging that the mask mandate is unconstitutional. These flight attendants contend that mask requirements on airplanes lead to hostility and violence toward them, per ABC4.

As of April 12, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 744 out of 1,150 cases of unruly passengers in 2022 have been related to face masks. Given those numbers, an expired mandate could significantly decrease the number of in-flight violent altercations.

However, the flight attendants union does not agree with the major airlines' plan to bring back passengers who had previously been banned due to refusal to wear masks, per AP.

Which US airlines still require masks?

As of now, the majority of airlines in the US have ended the mask requirement for flyers. On March 23, Airlines for America, an industry association that includes the top seven US airlines, sent an open letter to President Joe Biden asking him to end masking and international predeparture testing requirements. The organization said that the rules "no longer make sense in the current public health context" and that "science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate."

Generally, airlines follow protocols put in place by the Transportation Security Administration, so if the mandate isn't reinstated, the airlines are likely to keep the "no mask necessary" policy.

"We remain in communication with the Administration as they reassess the existing mask requirements and work to identify a path forward from COVID-era policies," an AFA representative told CNET. "We are encouraged by the lifting of mask requirements in all 50 states and other COVID-related restrictions across the country."

An airplane flying

For some airlines, you'll still need to wear a mask when traveling to other countries with mandates, like Canada.

James Martin/CNET

Which international airlines have ended masks on flights?

The US requirements for masks on airlines have ended, and several international airlines, particularly in Europe, have recently eliminated mandatory masking on flights, as well.

On April 4, Norwegian Air announced that it was removing mask requirements for all of its flights. Norwegian flies almost entirely within Europe.

British Airways has also lifted its mask requirements on some of its flights, following the end of mask mandates in England and Wales.

Swedish airline SAS eliminated required masking on flights within Denmark, Sweden and Norway. All passengers over 6 years old traveling to or from other countries must still wear masks.

On March 16, Virgin Atlantic made masks optional for fliers traveling to Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and Jamaica.

Icelandair has also made masks optional for all flights except those to and from Canada, the US and Germany.

The UK-based airlines EasyJet, Jet2 and Tui have all lifted in-flight mask requirements for flights that originate and end at locations that don't require masks, including England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

How can I stay protected while the mask mandate is lifted?

If you're concerned about COVID-19 while traveling, there are a few measures you can take to help keep yourself protected.

  • Wear a face mask while in flight.
  • Choose a window seat, if possible -- this exposes you to fewer people than an aisle seat.
  • Stay up to date on your vaccines.
  • Wipe down your seat and tray with a disinfectant cloth.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands before eating.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.