Why Delta Air Lines’ health chief thinks the airplane mask mandate will soon be lifted


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Passengers wearing protective masks wait to board a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., on Wednesday, April 7, 2021.
Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Delta Air Lines Chief Health Officer Henry Ting said that he believes that the federal mask mandate for airports and airplanes will be lifted on “April 18th or shortly thereafter.”

Speaking at CNBC’s Healthy Returns event on Wednesday, Ting said that while he does not know if the mandate will come down on April 18, the CDC, TSA, and the White House are all “looking closely at this” and will “certainly provide a roadmap.”

“We’ve always known from the beginning of the pandemic that all restrictions should be lifted as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Ting said, adding that there is a transition occurring right now from “a global pandemic to a seasonal respiratory virus.”

Ting, a renowned cardiologist who was named Delta’s first chief health officer in January 2021, said that amid the pandemic, the airline’s efforts around air ventilation, cleaning, and masking have resulted in “few if any outbreaks that could be attributed to a flight.”

The U.S. extended the requirement that masks are to be worn on planes and in airports, as well as on buses, trains, and other forms of transportation, through April 18 before it was set to expire on March 19. The Biden administration initially issued the mask mandate order shortly after the president took office in January 2021 and has repeatedly extended it since then. Under President Trump, there was no government mandate around masking, but airlines, including Delta, issued their own mask requirements dating back to the start of the pandemic in spring 2020.

The airline industry has been pushing back against further extensions of the mandate in recent months. On March 23, Delta CEO Ed Bastian, along with the CEOs of American Airlines, Alaska Air Group, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and others, sent a joint letter to Biden that said it is “past time to eliminate COVID-era transportation policies,” which includes the mask mandate on airplanes and in airports.

“Given that we have entered a different phase of dealing with this virus, we strongly support your view that COVID-19 need no longer control our lives,” the letter says. The CEOs also called for the removal of international pre-departure testing requirements for U.S. inbound passengers.

Ting said that the CDC is aware that airports and airplanes are “really the last place where masks are still required,” and he added that in “the rest of America you can go to restaurants, churches, sports venues, where masking is optional.”

He also noted the impact that both abiding by and enforcing those rules for the last two years has had on Delta’s workers, flight attendants, and crew. More than 71% of the record 5,981 reports of unruly airline passenger behavior in 2021 were tied to disputes over mask mandates, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“This has been two years that’s been hard on our people,” he said. “This is the last area where I think the CDC is looking at when it’s safe to have an exit ramp and lift the mask mandate.”

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