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Airlines want to drop COVID-19 travel precautions. Is now the right time?

Airline CEOs push to drop COVID restrictions
MoneyWatch: Airline CEOs push to drop COVID-19 protocols 04:18

After one of the most turbulent periods in air travel history — loaded with new rules and regulations and plenty of unruly and disruptive passengers — airlines want to jettison COVID-era safety precautions for flights. 

The CEOs of the nation's leading airlines this week sent a letter to the White House urging the Biden administration to rescind pre-departure testing and vaccination requirements for international travelers and drop the federal mask mandate on flights, arguing that the measures are no longer necessary as coronavirus infections drop sharply across the U.S.

The precautions "are no longer aligned with the realities of the current epidemiological environment," they said in the letter. 

Epidemiologists aren't so sure, saying it might be too soon to eliminate COVID-19 rules in the air. Allowing passengers to fly unmasked could also deter older and immunocompromised customers from traveling, while also hurting the airline business.

When can we relax?

"It is reasonable to be having the conversation of when we should be relaxing these restrictions," David Dowdy, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBS MoneyWatch. "When the [Biden] administration should respond by lifting those restrictions is a different matter. It may be a month or so too early to be making those decisions."

Before COVID-19 protocols are lifted on planes, a threshold needs to be set for dropping precautions — and another for reinstituting mandates if virus cases start rising again.

"We need to determine 'when do we relax precautions' and 'when do we reinstate them' if we see cases go up again. Otherwise you could argue we would keep these in place until there is no COVID left on earth," Dowdy said. 

"I would want to see cases going down again and see the last of the hotspots die down a bit more," he added. 

Airline executives argue that it's time to lift mask mandates because they're no longer required in many other public environments, like restaurants and retail stores, where the risk of transmission is higher. 

"It makes no sense that people are still required to wear masks on airplanes, yet are allowed to congregate in crowded restaurants, schools and at sporting events without masks, despite none of these venues having the protective air-filtration system that aircraft do," the CEOs of nearly a dozen airlines, including American, Delta, JetBlue and United, wrote in their letter. 

Potential "explosion of cases"

Air quality on airplanes is generally good because planes are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters that constantly recirculate fresh air into the cabin. But the risk of transmission would increase substantially if most passengers, particularly infectious individuals, were to stop wearing masks. 

Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said that for most healthy Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19, eliminating masks on flights is unlikely to pose a serious risk. But the calculation changes if you're seated near someone infected with disease.

"Air quality is good on an airplane. However, when you're sitting side by side with someone who has a COVID infection, perhaps someone 10 rows behind you won't contract it, but it won't protect the person sitting next to you," Carnethon told CBS MoneyWatch. 

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"If you roll back every mitigation strategy at one time, you have great potential to see an explosion of cases, and that's risky," she added.

When it comes to restoring confidence in air travel, Carnethon also said that ending mask mandates could end up having the opposite effect that airlines intend.

"The reason they are pushing to drop them are economic reasons they perceive would help boost travel, but they are going to end up excluding a demographic for which it's not safe to be in an enclosed space without masks, including older adults and adults who are immune-compromised," she said. "From a business point of view, I don't know if it will yield the economic gains they think it will if people who are at risk make the decision not to travel."  

Epidemiologist Peter Schnall, director of the Healthy Work Campaign, which focuses on the impact of work-related stress, said it's premature to lift COVID-19 protocols in the skies. In effect, this would put the burden of assessing the health risks of flying on individuals.

"There is an inherent risk involved with being in a small space when you're not wearing a mask, " he said. "We're not yet ready to move into the phase where we are using individual mitigation strategies. It is still essential that these public health measures remain in place."

A burden on airline staff 

In pushing to drop the in-flight virus rules, airline CEOs also highlight the toll that enforcing pandemic health measures has taken on airline personnel. That includes ticketing agents tasked with verifying COVID-19 test results, and flight attendants effectively assigned the role of mask enforcers, resulting in altercations with unruly passengers who refused to mask up.  

"This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers. This in turn takes a toll on their own well-being," the CEOs said.

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Indeed, testy passengers who have refused to comply with mask mandates have been a challenge for flight attendants. 

"It was already a difficult enough job to be a flight attendant, but then to have to be a bouncer on top of that and to do so at 30,000 feet in the air, frankly it's asking too much," Scott Keyes, a flight expert and founder of Scott's Cheap Flights, a website that finds deals on airfare for its members, told CBS MoneyWatch. "There have been so many disruptions and air-rage incidents, and I think a lot of that can be traced back to these rules — folks bristling at having to wear masks and at other people not wearing their masks correctly. I think once it's no longer a rule, we'll probably see significantly less of it."

A better solution?

Keyes thinks eliminating the requirement that international travelers show a negative COVID-19 test result would have a more significant effect on passengers' travel decisions, given that testing can be inconvenient and that a positive test result could mean having to quarantine abroad. 

"You can't take an at-home test. You have to devote a significant portion of the last day of your trip to getting a negative test. And heaven forbid you get an infection and you're stuck for a while — it dampens people's enthusiasm for international travel," he said.

It's also partly why he thinks international travel has yet to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels.

"The testing requirement is preventing a lot of people from taking trips that might otherwise have taken," Keyes said. 

Carri Chan, a professor of decisions, risk and operations at Columbia Business School, agreed that the testing requirement has been a more significant barrier to travel than the mask mandate.

"Certainly for international flights getting back to the U.S., there are people who are concerned about the financial ramifications of not being able to come back if they test positive," she told CBS MoneyWatch. She also said that waiving the COVID-19 precautions could dampen travel demand from families with small children, who aren't yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

"That could potentially impact demand in another way," she said. "I think eliminating the mask mandate is likely to be more of a deterrent, whereas getting rid of the testing requirement may likely increase demand."

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