By AP and The Dallas Morning News
MOST major US airlines are no longer requiring passengers or employees to wear masks after the White House said it was lifting the Covid-19 restriction on Monday, at least temporarily, after a federal judge struck down the public health measure.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines, along with competitors United, Delta and Alaska dropped face mask mandates on Monday within hours of the White House saying it was giving up on the Covid-19 health measure that has been a part of flying in the pandemic era.
Dallas Love Field told WFAA-TV (Channel 8) that masks would be optional for employees, passengers and other guests. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has not responded to the new ruling, the TV station said.
The change of policy came after a federal judge in Florida overturned the rule, forcing the Biden Administration to challenge the ruling or let it go. The White House said in a statement on Monday that it is “reviewing the decision and assessing potential next steps.”
But “in the meantime, today’s court decision means CDC’s public masking order is not in effect at this time,” according to the statement.
That means the Transportation Security Administration will not enforce the rule requiring mask use on airplanes, trains and public transit buses, said the White House statement. “CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”
Southwest Airlines said on Monday that “as a result of this development, effectively immediately, Southwest employees and customers will be able to choose whether they would like to wear a mask, and we encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing.”
Chicago-based United and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, two of the nation’s largest carriers, said the masking rule would no longer be enforced among employees or passengers on domestic and international flights to countries that didn’t have their own masking rules for planes. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines also said masks would be optional.
“While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit,” Chicago-based United said in a statement.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines did not immediately return a request for comment on whether the company would drop mask requirements.
Airlines have been lobbying the federal government to drop the mandate, but have deferred the decision to aviation and health regulators and the executive branch. Airline leaders argued that mask mandates have dropped in most parts of the country for bars, restaurants, arenas and other public places.
The change of policy came after nearly 14 months of federal mask mandates, but in earnest airlines have been requiring masks on planes since early in summer 2020. Airlines and some airline employee unions have asked the administration to get rid of the rule.
Lyn Montgomery, who leads the TWU Local 556 union for flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, said the end of the mask mandate will come with “mixed emotions” for the people that work on airplanes.
“There are crew members that are ready for masks to be an option when you fly, not a rule,” Montgomery said. “We hope that we will see a decrease in the number of unruly passenger incidents since there is a direct correlation with face masks.”
Many expected the mask mandate to end soon, but the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention extended it this month until May 3 with a new Covid-19 variant spike moving across the world and taking hold in the US.
The decision on Monday by US District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the Biden administration overstepped its pandemic authority with the face mask rule and that the CDC improperly failed to justify its decision and did not follow proper rulemaking.
In her 59-page ruling, Mizelle said the only remedy was to vacate the rule entirely across the country because it would be impossible to end it for the limited group of people who objected in the lawsuit.
The judge said “a limited remedy would be no remedy at all” and that the courts have full authority to make a decision such as this — even if the goals of the CDC in fighting the virus are laudable.
“Because our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends, the court declares unlawful and vacates the mask mandate,” she wrote.
The federal mask requirement for travellers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, which sought to kill it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely. Republicans in Congress also fought to kill the mandate.
Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was not directly involved in the case but has battled against many government coronavirus requirements, praised the ruling in a statement on Twitter.
“Great to see a federal judge in Florida follow the law and reject the Biden transportation mask mandate. Both airline employees and passengers deserve to have this misery end,” DeSantis tweeted.
Critics have seized on the fact that states have rolled back rules requiring masks in restaurants, stores and other indoor settings, and yet Covid-19 cases have fallen sharply since the omicron variant peaked in mid-January.
There have been a series of violent incidents on aircraft that have mainly been attributed to disputes over the mask-wearing requirements.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2021 by two plaintiffs and the Health Freedom Defence Fund, described in the judge’s order as a nonprofit group that “opposes laws and regulations that force individuals to submit to the administration of medical products, procedures and devices against their will.”
Top: Travellers queue up in long lines to pass through the south security checkpoint in Denver International Airport. Photo: David Zalubowski / Associated Press and published by The Dallas Morning News
Home Page: An air hostess putting a bag away. Photo: Getty Images and published by BBC
(The Dallas Morning News staff writer Nataly Keomoungkhoun and The Associated Press contributed to this report)