Suddenly, it was over. An unmasked American Airlines flight attendant at the front of the American Airlines A321 announced it as boarding finished.
“You may have noticed that your flight crew may or may not be wearing a face mask and your neighbors may or may not be wearing a face mask. As of 7:15 tonight, American Airlines made that optional, so we are aware that people are not wearing face masks for the first time in about two years. We do recognize and appreciate anyone who would still like to wear one, that is your choice, but wanted to make sure everyone knew it was ok to not wear one starting tonight.”
I heard a smattering of applause and saw countless hands rise to ears to alight them of the masks that had rested upon them for the past two years.
I then saw two hands rise, middle fingers extended, in the general direction of the front of the aircraft.
I thought to myself, “man, if that’s not a microcosm of the COVID experience, I’m not sure what is.”
…and then I relieved my face of its mask as well.
How the mask mandate ended was as unorganized as it began
Let’s go back to yesterday. I posted news about a judge in Florida overturning the mask mandate and why it might have been a gift for the Biden administration and, only an hour or so later, the first domino fell. United, who had previously said they would continue to enforce the mandate pending further clarification from the TSA, reversed course and announced, in some cases mid-flight, that they would no longer enforce the mask mandate.
Then a tweet from a passenger aboard a Southwest flight about to depart from Honolulu where the pilot announced masks would not be required on that flight. (the passenger’s husband wisely turned towards her and asked what he should do).
What some celebrated as freedom others treated as their worst fears realized.
I had to see it for myself so I booked a quick roundtrip on American, drove to DFW Airport at speeds that are probably best described as immoral, made it just in time to pay for my flight at the counter and make my flight, and then flew back this morning.
What did passengers think about the mandate going away?
I tried to be an actual journalist on this trip and asked passengers, both masked and unmasked, what they thought about the mandate going away. The responses were as varied as you’d expect, although the most common response on the jet bridge was, “no way are you serious?! [unmasks]”
One lady from the Bay Area decided to keep wearing her mask because she worked as a bartender and found that she hadn’t gotten the flu over the past couple of years like she usually does.
An older couple was the only mixed group I saw, the husband had shed his mask while his wife still wore hers. She explained that it all felt so new that she just wasn’t sure she was ready yet. By the end of the flight, though, I saw her get up to use the lavatory without her mask anywhere to be seen.
What about the gate agents and flight attendants?
walked moseyed strolled sprinted into DFW Airport, I saw a phalanx of American Airlines customer service agents at their stanchions. Only one of them had removed their mask, but I saw a few more remove theirs while I was being checked in. TSA agents were all masked, but that was mostly the last I saw of the masks. I did not see an American gate agent with a mask on. When I walked onto the flight, the first two flight attendants I encountered did not have masks on. I told them I was media and asked for their thoughts. One of the flight attendants, who had been flying with American since 2014, simply said, “I didn’t sign up to be Mask Police on every flight.” Her colleague agreed, saying that they were just so tired of it all.
I cannot imagine what the past two years have been like for flight crews and gate agents. Three out of the four flight attendants on my flight chose not to wear masks (nobody gave the one who masked up any grief, thankfully).
What about the middle finger person?
I was able to look at the video and deduce who flipped the double birds and caught up to her as we were leaving the aircraft. She didn’t want to be on camera but we had a good chat about why she was so strongly against everything that happened and I couldn’t actually fault her logic, although flipping the double birds was probably not the best way of showing it (in her defense it lasted for all of a second).
She said that she felt that something of this magnitude should have been decided in advance and rolled out carefully, not just sprung on everyone at the last minute. She felt it left her without a choice of whether or not to fly, because she was in the middle of her itinerary when this all went down and she needed to get home.
Andy, what did you think?
Man, it almost felt normal again. I found it hard to not think about the final flight I took before the pandemic lockdowns hit the USA. It was March 2020 and I was flying back from an incredible few days behind the scenes at NASA. I might have been sitting on that same jet, oblivious about what was coming or how long it would be before flying felt somewhat “normal” again.
I was careful with my wording at the beginning of the last paragraph. This flight did not feel normal. I was tempted to think it did. I chatted with a group of very dear travel friends (that I know through Clubhouse) and heard lots of opinions about the gravity of the mandate ending as suddenly as it did. Some felt that opponents of the mandate simply judge-shopped until they found the friendliest one and that the ruling was hot garbage. Others felt that the Biden administration could not hide behind a ruling with such spurious logic as they felt was used in the ruling yesterday. Still others felt that this was the hallmark of selfishness, placing our wants over the true needs of others. And then some felt it was time, that there would’ve never been a Good Time to make the call, and that ripping the proverbial bandage off now probably isn’t better or worse than any other time.
I did not wear a mask for my flight last night nor my flight this morning. As soon as it started to feel normal, a kid began coughing around me, and I was much more aware of it than I would’ve been in the past. As soon as I got comfortable and tried to bask in the “unmaskedness”, I thought of those on the flight who were dealing with crippling anxiety from it all. I wish someone had made a decision to do this in an orderly fashion with plenty of advanced notice.
It was certainly one of the most interesting days in the history of corporate communications, as press releases went out and then were rolled back only minutes later. It seemed like every time I refreshed Twitter (or Musker or whatever Elon will call it) everything changed.
In a certain way, it ended how it began. Go back to 2020 and it seemed like restrictions changed hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute. Countries opened their borders and slammed them shut again, stranding a good friend of mine in Schipol for 4 days because requirements changed in the middle of her flight. Passengers and the general public didn’t seem to know everything that was going on and they didn’t know where to go for information, it was like the only thing that was certain is that people were scared.
For those who wanted to get rid of the mandate, yesterday was a celebration of individual liberty. For those who felt it wasn’t yet time, yesterday represented a worst nightmare of sorts, since cases are already on the rise again. I can’t sit here and tell you that either side of the coin is more correct than the other, I see logical points on both sides. I was glad to be on a flight without a mask but, at the same time, I felt guilty because the other passengers in my row all kept theirs on. I wondered if I was a source of anxiety for them. I guess I’ll never know.
I will tell you what I enjoyed, though. I was upgraded to First Class for the short flight home this morning and actually had the same flight crew as last night. I enjoyed seeing their smiles as they delivered wonderful service to their passengers whether they were wearing masks or not. I missed nonverbal communication between crew and passengers. It was a quick flight and I’m tempted to say it was unremarkable but a quick smile and offer of a drink and a snack made it special, since it was the first smile I had seen from a flight attendant in probably 100,000 miles of flying!
So, how now shall we live? I hope everyone respects the individual liberties of those around them, I hope everyone who is able goes to get their vaccination, and I hope that, even during this stressful travel season (and man this summer is going to be insane) that people will look for those quick smiles and find those small moments of happiness. I promise they’ll be there.