Following the Florida judge’s ruling as of April 18, 2022, the mask mandate was lifted for travelers. Airplanes, trains, and public transportation no longer require you to wear a mask. What does it mean for the airline industry? How safe is it to travel now?
Jamie Larounis, a travel expert and analyst with The Forward Cabin shares his commentary on the new mask-optional policy and what it means for travelers and the travel industry.
…just from a general overview, at this point, once you drop the mask mandate, it's really hard to come back into it.
Watch the video interview to learn more about the new mask policy and if there are safety concerns.
Questions covered in this discussion about the new mask policy on airplanes for travelers:
- Mask-optional policy
- Mask rules for airline crew
- Mask policy at the airport
- Requirements for Covid-19 tests
- Airlines that won during the pandemic
- Travel industry recovery
- Airlines and the Russia-Ukraine war
What Is Mask-Optional Policy on Airlines?
Michael: What's going on with these masks today? What is happening with airlines? I believe somewhere around April 18th, there was a ruling saying that it's no longer obligatory for airline passengers to wear masks. What's going on?
Jamie: Back in April, essentially what happened is, there was a judge in Florida and just to preface this conversation, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a legal expert, but just to give a general overview, there was a judge in Florida, a Trump-appointed judge for whatever that means, just because they were likely a little bit conservative and decided that the mask mandate was unconstitutional, made a ruling, and essentially within 24, 48, 72 hours from that ruling, airlines dropped their mask mandates, airports did as well, trains, buses. In pretty much every form of transportation where you previously needed a mask, you no longer needed a mask.
Really within just a few days of that ruling, and so it happened really quickly, I don't know that anybody was necessarily anticipating that ruling happening. Not necessarily, I guess, that ruling wouldn't eventually happen, but in the manner that it happened and how quick it happened.
So there was a lot of confusion within that first week because airlines and hotels and travel companies had been wanting to drop the mask mandate for quite some time. But of course, there was a little bit of conflict with the CDC in their understanding that it was still a public health necessity, and so there was a little bit of back and forth, a little bit of confusion over that past week, but fast-forwarding to where we're at right now on May 20th, about a month later, those mask mandates are no longer there.
So I just flew on a plane last night to San Francisco, there was no mask mandate, I've been to a number of hotels since, you're free to walk about the lobby and wherever you are without a mask.
And so, there's been some talk of appealing it, and I understand, I think The Biden Administration wants to appeal it, and you may ask this later, but I think just from a general overview, at this point, once you drop the mask mandate, it's really hard to come back into it.
So consumers have gotten accustomed to not wearing a mask
I have no scientific data as to how many people are wearing a mask or what the percentage is, but I will tell you from personal experience, having traveled a lot over just the past month where this mask mandate was dropped, there's a lot of people not wearing a mask, and so to ask those people to start wearing a mask, I think would be challenging.
How Does New Mask Rule Impact Airline Crew?
Michael: How do people in the airline industry who work on airplanes, stewards, stewardesses, and pilots, how do they feel about the mask?
Jamie: You can take this from two different perspectives. The unions still want masks in place for the most part, and that's generally something they would endorse, no matter what it was, whether it's masking, whether it's another type of safety feature.
Generally, they're concerned with the safety of flight attendants, and the safety of crew on board. And so even if they have no direct impact over masking, they'll try to influence other things related to that. For example, more limited meal service, more limited contact with passengers, they'll find ways of still going about that safety protocol that they feel is necessary on board.
By and large, I think flight attendants have mostly removed their masks at this point, and I say that from experience, having flown a lot, having taken trains a lot, having done a lot of different transportation methods over the last month, and this is just a personal judgment, I would say, a good 70% have ditched the mask.
And so, as I was alluding to before, it's really hard to bring that back. Even with the unions pushing mask mandates, pushing one agenda, I think a lot of their crews feel differently and I get it, airline crews are in a much different position than I think your ordinary traveler.
So for example, when I go on a trip, there are plenty of opportunities for me to take a mask off throughout the day. I get to the airport, I put my mask on, I get on my plane, I get off the plane, I leave the airport, and that's maybe a two, three hour, four-hour time span.
You've got crews that are waking up at whatever time in the morning, going on three, four, five trips, sometimes really long haul trips, whether it be to Europe, South America, Australia, whatever it is, and they're stuck wearing that mask for 12, 13, 14 hours a day. And so I think they're in a much different position because they cannot really get without the mask. There was really no outside environment that they could go to, you get off your plane, and you're stuck within an airport, which still requires the mask.<
I think a lot of them are done with it simply because of the length of time they have to wear that mask and the burden of wearing it across the day, whereas your average consumer, I think, has plenty of opportunities to not wear it.
In addition, crews are held to a different standard, when a crew takes off a mask, there's the likelihood that a passenger may complain or someone may take a picture of them, or so on and so forth. If I accidentally slip my mask in an airport, likely nothing will happen, even though there are protocols and procedures and laws and all sorts of stuff.
Generally, a lot of that wasn't enforced just in your quick take down your mask while you're sitting alone in the airport type of thing. So, there are a lot of different ways you can sort of taking it for flight crews.
Should You Still Wear a Mask at the Airport?
Michael: So airports… Do consumers have to wear masks in the airports, or it's also not mandatory, start in April 18?
Jamie: Right now it's not mandatory. I don't know of any airport within the U.S. now, there are some foreign airports, which are a whole different ballgame, but within the U.S., I do not believe there is any airport currently requiring a mask inside.
Do You Still Need To Have a Covid Test?
Michael: So let's move on internationally. When you travel internationally to the United States, do COVID tests still require?
Jamie: Yeah. So they are still required. And actually, I'm hopefully a perfect example here because I'm flying on Sunday to Europe. I've got to help with a tour in Europe and I'm going to come back on May 31st. Assuming this testing mandate is not dropped by then, I'm going to have to get a test at Copenhagen Airport when I return.
So yes, testing is still required. It was changed several months ago, essentially now you need the test within 24 hours of departure, regardless of whether you're vaccinated or not vaccinated.
There is a huge push by airlines and other travel companies to ditch this testing mandate because they feel, and I think rightfully so, they feel that they're losing travelers because of it.
You're going to lose both a U.S. traveler, which is going to go abroad, which is easy. But then, they have to return back. And so people are questioning, "well, should I just take the trip at all? What if I test positive? I don't want to go, I don't want to be in that position."
You've got American travelers that are in that spot, you've got foreign travelers that want to come to the U.S. that need to test and there's uncertainty, and to be honest, with my trip next week, I don't know what I would do if I tested positive on the return. It's a work trip, I'm going to go, I'm going to figure it out. If I test positive, likely I would just have to remain in Copenhagen for a few more days and purchase a hotel, but that's an added expense, and your average traveler, they likely can't afford that extra expense.
It's a huge concern, and I think for many people, this is why you've seen domestic sales of things skyrocket through the roof. If you look at domestic travel, and domestic hotels, the rates are just mind-boggling at this point, and that's because people feel safe within the United States.
I don't have to wear a mask when I fly to Hawaii now. I don't need to get a vaccination. I don't need to show anybody anything. I don't need to test on the return, no matter what your persuasion or inclination is for all these different safety measures, I don't need to do anything. I'm free to move about as I wish, and there's no barrier to travel.
So, do I think the testing mandate will drop? Yes, I do. I don't think it can be held on forever.
And mainly at this point, it's a very, I think, bureaucratic thing. I am all for safety measures, I want to catch COVID before it starts, and if there are people bringing it in from another country, certainly I want to stop that.
But the problem is that you can freely drive across the border with Canada or drive across the border in Mexico and not have to show a test, this is really just for air travel. And so, if we're going to put all of these loopholes in place, well, what's the point?
To sum it up, I'm all for safety, I'm not advocating that we do something unsafe, and if testing is the right way to do it, then I suggest we do it. But we can't half-ass it in the process, and in fact, I know that there are people out there that, for example, have tested positive or don't want to deal with the testing requirement, that have flown into, let's say, Tijuana in Mexico and walked or driven across the border into San Diego, and it's a perfectly legal loophole.
There was just a story the other day, maybe a week, two weeks ago, of a sports team in Canada that had to play a game in the U.S. Instead of flying on a direct flight to whatever their destination was, they flew to Seattle... Sorry. They flew into Vancouver, got off the plane, took a bus over to Seattle, so they wouldn't have to test, and then continued on another flight, to their final destination.
So people are obviously creative, more creative than I can come up with, but people are willing to use those loopholes, and I don't think that testing requirement should exist if we're going to provide all of these other avenues to get around
What Airlines Won During COVID-19?
Michael: The last two years, it's my own feeling, please correct me if I'm wrong, I feel that European air travel got reshaped. Some airlines actually won, and some airlines actually lost. I had the pleasure of traveling to Istanbul in winter, and they built a magnificent, huge new airport, and Turkish Airlines, I feel like, expanded their reach three or four times over the Corona time.
Is it just my feeling or that's the fact? What's happening? What airlines lost, what airlines won during the Corona time?
Jamie: By and large, no airline really came out ahead here. When we first had that surge in March 2020, pretty much everyone had shut down. Now coming out of that, I think there are a lot of airlines that went strategic with it, you mentioned specifically Turkish, and Turkish is in a really unique position in that they're one of the largest international carriers. And so they can take me from the United States, transiting through Istanbul to pretty much anywhere else in the world, and not a lot of airlines can say that.
Even major large airlines can't say that because Istanbul is strategically placed, and similar you could say that about Emirates and a few other Middle Eastern airlines, Qatar, but Turkish really does it well.
I don't think it's fair to say that any airline came out ahead here because travel was suppressed everywhere, and especially for international airlines, because in the U.S., when COVID happened, the demand we saw as the recovery started to happen was domestic, people said, "okay, COVID is either here to stay or it's waning, but I'm not going to travel international, instead I'm just going to travel to the other side of the country".
That's all well and good because we're a large country, we've got a huge population. We have major cities on either coast in the middle and there are things to do, and we've also got Alaska and Hawaii.
People in, for example, Turkey, don't have that luxury. Turkey is a relatively, when you compare it to the U.S., a smaller country, and so, a lot of these European countries, a lot of these middle eastern countries, you wanted to go somewhere, you usually go international, there's not a ton of domestic travel as there is with the U.S. Those airlines saw a significant drop because their bread and butter is international flying. If you can't fly international or you don't want to fly international, you're obviously at a loss.
And so, coming out of this now, as we start to move on from COVID, airlines are going to be creative. They're going to be creative not only with the pricing, but they're also going to be creative with the amenities that they're going to offer. They're going to be creative with new planes and new aircraft and new routes and new services.
You're starting to see a lot more, especially coming out of the U.S., but also some international. You're seeing a lot more direct routes, a lot more point A to point B, rather than having to transit through a point C and that's to try to pick up that premium demand that's out there.
There's a huge focus on premium travel. We used to think of first-class and business-class travelers being in a business and corporate and people on an expense account. But we're now finding that there are leisure travelers that are flying to a certain destination, working while they're there on their laptop, sitting on the beach, or sitting at a European cafe. They're willing to pay a premium for a more comfortable ride, and previously, I don't think airlines understood this or captivated that market, that the leisure travelers also have money, and they're willing to spend it.
And so there's a number of different tactics that I think airlines will use here, but I don't think it's fair to say that any one airline came out ahead, I think if anything, the airlines that could captivate off of domestic travel, whether that's here or whether that's any other country worldwide, I think they were the ones that came ahead, versus Turkish, which, use that example, they're 99% international traffic, and so they're going to have the hardest time recovering
Has Travel Industry Completely Recovered?
Michael: Has the travel industry completely recovered or we are still under the volume-wise travel amount that is happening? I mean…Are we over the problem?
Jamie: Yeah. So, again, this answer could open up a can of worms because there are 10 different ways to answer this. But U.S. travel, I think, for the most part, we're starting to see load factors, which means the number of people on a plane well north of 80%, sometimes 90%, sometimes even oversold in many cases.
By the end of this summer, most statistics show that pre-COVID levels will return…
We're definitely on that trajectory, so there's no reason to assume that wouldn't happen. So for international travel, it's going to be a gradual return. We are starting to see a lot more international. I think the floodgates are going to open as soon as the testing requirement drops.
We've obviously started to see a huge shift in demand as I was referencing before for domestic, and so it's really hard to gauge, well, has travel recovered? Because normally in a normal year you'd have some people domestic, some people international, and right now it's heavily skewed domestic. So domestic hotels are very pricey and very filling.
What will happen once that testing mandate ends? What will happen once international travel fully recovers? I think we're going to start settling out that demand. It's not all going to be skewed domestic, but there are a lot of nuances here. You've got the issue in Ukraine right now, and so that's making travel uncomfortable even to other parts of Europe.
I mean, I've been to plenty of travel shows and events where people are concerned about visiting terrorists. They're concerned about visiting Amsterdam, and London even because travelers just view Europe as Europe and they don't realize the distance between those cities.
I was at a conference a few weeks ago and I think someone put a slide up that was saying that the difference from Kyiv to, I think it was Paris was the difference from New York to New Orleans, it's a huge distance between them, but many travelers don't understand that, and so they view traveling to Europe as unsafe because of the issue in Russia and Ukraine. So, that's causing some issues, obviously.
Other things that are causing issues are, that China is pretty much still locked down, and so we're obviously seeing supply issues and things like that. Business travel is literally nothing at this point to there. There were a lot of issues in the South Pacific, but mostly that has reopened now, I'll actually be in Sydney in about, I don't know, two or three weeks.
So I'll check it out once I go down there. There are obviously ebbs and flows here as to where that demand is going to come from. I think if you ask most travel industry analysts, I think we're looking at probably a 2024 date for a full recovery, but that's anyone's guess here if that's going to happen, with new waves, with new variance, with new lockdowns. There have been dates floating around for the past two years as to when something's going to happen.
But for the most part, if we wanted a short answer here, demand has recovered. It is recovering, the question is, where will the different demand from those different pockets and sectors, and when will that start to settle out and start to return to pre-COVID levels? And I think we're probably looking at 2023, 2024, once we start to get back to fully normal.
Are Russian Airlines Still Flying?
Michael: Thank you very much. You've mentioned Russia, and Ukraine war going on right now, what happens to Aeroflot?
Jamie: Well, when people ask me this question, I do also want to mention that there's Aeroflot and there's also S7, which is part of Oneworld. There are two airlines impacted primarily by this issue. A lot of people just say Aeroflot and forget, that there is another major airline that's actually part of a major alliance.
So there are two airlines, Aeroflot, of course, being the larger of them. There are going to be major problems here, not only can they not service their planes now. Thanks to the lack of parts and trading opportunities and maintenance opportunities, they're not flying, so they're not profitable, because they're not selling any tickets and no one wants to fly on them.
But I think coming out of it, likely the Russian government, if they had the funds to do so, would likely prop up Aeroflot and keep them afloat, because Aeroflot is more or less state-owned. S7 is going to have a much more difficult time because they're private. So, both airlines were removed from their respective alliances, Aeroflot with SkyTeam, S7 with Oneworld, and the way the press releases were phrased is that it was a suspension, it was temporary.
I mean, at this point you can really just consider them being removed from those alliances, and so even if there is some sort of recovery, even if Russia does end up bailing out Aeroflot, Aeroflot is going to be stuck without partners. I wholeheartedly believe is, even if they pull out of SkyTeam, which they have, it's going to be very difficult for them to go after even individual airlines to partner, because at this point really, no one wants to do business with any facet of Russia.
And I don't think if this conflict were to end tomorrow, we're not going to see on Monday morning people starting to do business again with Russia, it's just not going to happen, there's too much of a stigma at this point. It's anyone's guess honestly, I think Aeroflot has a better chance, because they've got funding from the government, but the question is, if the Russian government goes under, that's not going to help anything either. So, we'll wait and see.
I think for people that have relied on those airlines previously, thanks to the alliances that they're in, I think you could pretty much discredit them at this point, I don't think there's any light at the end of the tunnel for those airlines to rejoin or resume their benefits, whether it be lounge access, or reciprocal mileage earning or anything like that.
I think the way consumers have to look at it and this doesn't affect that many consumers, just to be forward about it…
…those consumers that were relying on them, you can just put it to bed and focus your travel somewhere else.
Michael: Jamie, thank you very much. Thank you for your time today. It was really an interesting conversation, really appreciate it…>
As the airline industry gradually receivers from COVID, the masks become optional, and many airlines no longer will require COVID testing on domestic flights. While the lifted mandates still raise CDC concerns, airlines see a surge of flights and travelers.
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