- Three flight attendants told Insider they’re relieved major airlines have ended the mask mandate.
- Last year saw a record number of unruly passenger incidents, thousands related to masks.
- “I’m just happy I can go back to focusing on my other safety-related duties,” one flight attendant said.
Some flight attendants are quietly relieved that their airlines have ended the mask mandate on planes, as it means workers are no longer required to enforce masks among passengers who have grown increasingly hostile.
“Our most difficult interactions with passengers — basically ever — have happened over the last couple of years,” Rich, a flight attendant of nine years and founder of the Instagram page @twoguysonaplane, told Insider. He requested his last name not be included to protect his career, but Insider verified his identity and employment.
“The mask mandate has taken the fun out of our job,” he added.
Almost 6,000 unruly passenger incidents were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration last year — 4,290 of them related to face masks. Between 2006 and 2020, the agency investigated less than 200 total reports on a yearly basis, compared to the 1,113 investigations initiated in 2021. The concerning spike in passenger disruptions prompted lawmakers to introduce a bill that would create a “no-fly” list for unruly passengers.
“We’ve dealt with so many passengers who saw the mask mandate as an excuse to become violent verbally towards us,” a flight attendant of seven years for a major US airline told Insider. He spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his career, but Insider verified their identity and employment.
The flight attendant said he’s dealt with unruly passengers “too many times to count,” and has been called a “Nazi” for asking passengers to wear their masks correctly.
“Personally, I’m just happy I can go back to focusing on my other safety related duties,” he added.
Rich said his Wednesday flight felt less tense with masks being optional, and estimated that half of travelers voluntarily wore a face covering. He has personally chosen to continue masking at work, and said he hasn’t gotten COVID or a cold while wearing one in the last year.
Lyn Montgomery, a flight attendant of 30 years and president of TWU Local 556, the union of Southwest Airlines flight attendants, told Insider that the majority of members said they preferred the mask mandate to be lifted in union surveys.
However, Rich said the flight attendants he knows are divided in their opinions about the mandate being lifted, and said some feel more comfortable flying if all passengers are fully masked.
“As flight attendants, we rely on being healthy to be able to do our jobs,” he said.
According to Montgomery, the mandate’s end is “a good step toward normalcy for flight attendants.”
“The mask mandate has been one of the biggest changes that they’ve seen in their working environments since September 11,” she said. “It has been very difficult, creating a lot of unruly passenger behavior, a lot of microaggressions a lot of division. Now that it’s a choice we hope that that is going to help take away some of that tension and stress.”
A rapid change — announced while some flights were airborne
The change in airlines’ policies happened quickly, and was unexpected for many.
On Monday, the TSA announced it would no longer enforce a federal mask requirement on public transportation.
Major airlines adjusted their company guidelines the same day — a change that, in some cases, went into effect while flights were airborne, with pilots making the announcement.
The shift followed the ruling of a federal judge in Florida earlier that day, who argued the mandate was unlawful and “exceeded the CDC’s statutory authority.”
Rich, one of the flight attendants interviewed by Insider, also said Monday’s news caught him and his colleagues off guard.
The federal transportation mandate was originally set to expire on April 18, until the CDC announced last Wednesday that it would be extended until May 3.
The CDC extension, combined with the sudden court ruling in Florida, led to a chaotic turn of events, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told Insider in a statement.
“Yesterday’s mid-flight announcements on the lifting of mask mandates created confusion and uncertainty in our cabins,” Nelson said in a statement. “During this pandemic flight attendants have dealt with constant disruptions in our workplaces, including harassment and violence at a level we had never seen before.”
“Changing the rules on people when they have no choice to opt out is a recipe for conflict and distrust,” she added. “As we move forward, we urge the government, all airlines and airports to work urgently on consistent, clear messaging on the new policy.”
Risk for airline staff remains
With the mask mandate lifted, the looming question is the potential impact it could have on the health of airline workers, even as the frequency of unruly passenger violence seems likely to decrease. One possible indicator of the policy change’s potential impact on US airlines is the industry’s European counterparts.
EasyJet, a European budget airline, dropped its mask requirement on March 27. Within the next week, EasyJet canceled hundreds of flights, citing “higher than usual staff sickness levels,” CBS reported.
British Airways, which lifted its mask mandate on March 16, canceled 393 flights between March 28 and April 3, according to data provided to CBS. However, a BA spokesperson said only a small number of canceled flights were COVID-related.
The mass cancellations came amid a COVID surge in England. Public health experts recently told Insider that they recommend to continue wearing masks on planes as the BA.2 Omicron variant spreads throughout the US.
Meanwhile, airlines are struggling to hire and retain enough staff to handle the pent up demand that’s recently been unleashed on the travel industry as pandemic restrictions are scaled back.
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