While many argue against a mask mandate, the recent extension of this mandate for airlines is good … [+]
Weeks before the federal mask mandate on airplanes was scheduled to end on September 13, this mandate has been extended to January 18, 2022. Some in the airline industry have argued to eliminate this mandate. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Kevin Cramer have submitted legislation to remove all mandates related to the pandemic. But with the delta variant running rampant, this extension was not surprising.
For airlines, this is likely more positive than negative. Tensions related to mask wearing onboard have been a contributor to onboard bad behavior and record fines. Yet wearing masks protects flight attendants and other passengers, as long as there continues to be a sizable number of non-vaccinated adults. The industry needs traffic more than anything, and many more are likely to be willing to travel because of this mandate than will avoid flights because of the mandate. So, airline revenues for the fall will benefit from this extension, even if by a small amount.
It’s still hot in much of the country, but the summer travel period is largely over. By August 15 in most years, families have wrapped up any vacation travel as schools start to go back in session. This is also normally a time when companies start approving travel again, as the September-October months are typical for large conventions and often represent the last chances of the year to meet clients. Just as this is happening, however, many businesses are delaying their own return to offices, and surveys of business suggest that many are still jittery about the delta infection rates.
Both Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines have already said they will lose money in the third quarter, in part from operational mishaps but also because of weaker business bookings in Southwest’s case. What was once bullish language from airline executives about the return of business travel this fall has turned to apprehension as talk of needed booster shots and a return to more local restrictions continues.
The summer proved to be stronger for airline traffic than many had projected, and this was driven by families and many new fliers. This influx of infrequent fliers and almost no business traffic onboard helped to create the tough summer for onboard altercations. About 75% of these were because of people not willing to follow the mask mandate, so with fewer families traveling planes are likely to be less full, and the likelihood for onboard conflict reduces. Not all people who travel regularly may like the mask mandate, but they also aren’t the ones to challenge the system while onboard the airplane.
Alcohol sales onboard airplanes are good for airlines in that it is the only product that sells on virtually every flight, any time of day. Yet, selling alcohol with the mask mandate is not a good idea, for two obvious reasons. One is that there is no reason to encourage the release of inhibitions to make your political statement by punching the flight attendant. Second, those with a drink that don’t want to wear their mask can sip very slowly and argue that they would be wearing the mask, except that they are drinking. American has banned alcohol sales until the new end of the mask mandate, linking the two. Not all airlines have taken this step but there is no doubt that inflight crews are watching consumption more closely than usual.
Some in the airline industry have argued to remove the mask mandate, often citing the onboard skirmishes as a reason. One flier brought his case to Supreme Court, saying that the government did not have the right to tell him he must wear a mask onboard. Fortunately for our justice system the high court refused to hear the case. Yet others have argued more persuasively that the masks hurt travel, but this is a spurious argument as it also makes many comfortable enough to fly. These arguments will continue, and many do not specifically target the mandate for air travel but mandates in general.
This pandemic has gone on long enough. We’ve had effective vaccines since December, and they have been made widely available and free. The only reason this mask mandate had to be extended is because there are still far too many people who refuse to get vaccinated, and unless and until they do, we should all expect that the rest of us will be subject to restrictions, discomfort, and annoyance because of them. While I hope that January 13 really is the ending date for this mandate, it is far too early to predict what will happen. So, if you’re planning to fly for business or pleasure anytime in the next year, make sure you bring a good supply of clean masks with you.
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air
I am the former CEO of Spirit Airlines, where my strong team transformed the company into the highest margin airline in North America and created a new model for air travel in the US. I now serve on several public and private company boards, am an Adjunct Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and co-host the popular weekly podcast Airlines Confidential.