NEWS

TSA Extends Plane Mask Mandate Until May

thanksgiving travel

 Hugo Lin / Verywell

UPDATE

While the CDC decided to extend the mask mandate on public transportation until May 3, a federal judge has since struck it down. The mask mandate is no longer in effect while it undergoes review.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may have updated their mask guidance recently, but if you’re going on a flight, you still have to wear a mask.

The federal mask requirement for everyone across all transportation networks—which includes airports and commercial aircrafts—is still in effect. The mandate was originally set to expire in May of 2021.

Experts say it is too soon to be lifting mask mandates on transportation, which can effectively minimize COVID-19 transmission.

Should the Mask Mandates Be Extended?

Transportation hubs and modes of public transportation nationwide are usually high-traffic areas where there may be an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“I do think that it is too soon to lift mask mandates in airports and airplanes,” Beth Oller, MD, family physician at Solomon Valley Family Medicine, told Verywell. “We know that aircraft ventilation and filtration systems reduce the risk of transmission of airborne COVID enormously, however, there is still a risk.”

The risk depends on the flight duration, how well you and other passengers wear their masks, and whether you are seated near someone with COVID-19, she added.

Although the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations appear to be on a downward trend lately, it’s still important to continue the preventive public health strategies to minimize the likelihood of any surges in the future.

“Omicron is so highly infectious that in close contact only a very short time of exposure can lead to transmission,” Stanley H. Weiss, MD, professor of medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, told Verywell. “Plus, those who have had a natural infection or have been vaccinated are at risk of reinfection.”

Mask mandates would also help protect unvaccinated populations—including children below 5 years old who can't get vaccinated yet—and immunocompromised individuals who might not build adequate immunity to COVID-19 from vaccines.

Flight Attendants Await Direction

The mask mandates are in place not only to protect the passengers, but all the airport and aircraft staff as well. Like everyone, flight attendants are waiting to see whether the mandates will be extended or not.

“As of right now, we are still awaiting direction from the Department of Transportation, Transportation Security Administration, and public health officials with regards to mask updates on transportation," a spokesperson from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), told Verywell. "As of today, the best ways to protect yourself on an aircraft remain the same. We hope we will know more in the coming weeks."

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) has not taken a position on whether the mask policy should be extended. But they say in a press release that it's possible it may be extended based on a few factors like:

  • Young passengers not yet having access to the vaccine
  • Safety procedures being typically harmonized around the world
  • Ensuring passenger confidence in the safety of air travel

What This Means For You

It is recommended that you continue wearing masks at the airport and on planes to minimize COVID-19 transmission as much as possible.

Are Masks Effective in Reducing COVID-19 Transmission?

Air filtration and distribution systems used in airplanes are highly effective at reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission among passengers, but in-flight transmission can still occur.

“While the risk may be low for some, it is driven even lower when good ventilation is coupled with masking,” Oller said. “There is a big chance that the flight is not the riskiest part of your trip, but that exposure from being in the airport may present a higher risk as the air filtration is not as good [in] airports. People take their masks off to eat and drink, and you are around many more people than those just on your flight.”

Without masks, COVID-19 transmission is more likely to occur.

“On a plane, the flight crew is enforcing wearing of masks, [but] in airports, there is currently very little or no enforcement in many regions,” Weiss said. “Yet, the waiting time can be prolonged, especially as there can be delays. Plus the existing ventilation greatly varies in these closed, indoor locations.”

According to the newly released masking guidelines by the CDC, masking indoors in public is only recommended for places with a high COVID-19 community level. This might be tricky with airports given that people may have been from a location where the community level is highly different from that of their destination.

“The place of embarkment does not reflect all the places a person might have recently been at,” Weiss said. “Furthermore, persons at an airport are likely encountering persons who have been elsewhere.”

It's Best to Continue Wearing Masks on Planes

To increase COVID-19 protection when going on a flight, Weiss and Oller both recommended continuing to wear masks in airports and on planes even if the mandate will no longer be in place. They advised the use of well-fitting N95 or KN95 masks.

Should you remove them briefly to eat or drink, put them back in place immediately, and make sure that the mask goes over the nose at all times.

Similar to getting vaccinated, wearing a mask does not just protect you—it protects others, too. Even without a mandate, you can choose to wear a mask to make the flight safer for everybody.

“Wearing a mask in public indoor places reduces the risk of contracting COVID and this will hold true in airports and in planes,” Oller said. “I also think that wearing a mask on a plane is a courtesy to those around you, especially fellow travelers who are medically vulnerable or unable to be vaccinated, and to the flight crews, who are exposed to hundreds of people daily.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pombal R, Hosegood I, Powell D. Risk of COVID-19 during air travel. JAMA. 2020;324(17):1798. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.19108

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 community levels.