It’s been two week since a federal court threw out the CDC’s transport mask mandate, to the glee of some and the outrage of others.
While many people—including flight attendants and passengers on planes—celebrated the court’s decision, others predicted the move would have dire consequences.
CBS News, for example, reported that European airlines were forced to “cancel hundreds of flights as they grapple with coronavirus-related staffing shortages weeks after they ditched rules requiring passengers and staff to mask up in the air.”
The news agency noted that UK airlines alone canceled 769 flights in total between March 31 and April 7 because of a shortage of flight crews due to illness. CBS quoted Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist, who said such outbreaks were needless and predictable.
SO DAMN PREDICTABLE—UK 🇬🇧 govt drops restrictions, airlines like @easyJet drops masks… and less than 2 weeks later… huge spike in pilots and flight attendants out sick with #COVID19 unable to work, and 120 flights cancelled! Airline CEOs asked for this. https://t.co/zVOc2g2KzS pic.twitter.com/YWD7XIOodl— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) April 4, 2022
How Are the Airlines Managing?
Few would disagree with Feigl-Ding that airlines are important infrastructure, but his claim that mask mandates are crucial to their success bears scrutiny.
First, it’s worth noting that the 769 UK flights canceled between March 31 and April accounted for just 4 percent of those flights, which means that 96 percent went off without a hitch. Even more importantly, a single airline—EasyJet—accounted for roughly 40 percent of the canceled flights.
This suggests the UK’s numbers were skewed to a large extent by a single outbreak that disrupted many flights. Whether a mask mandate would have prevented this outbreak from occurring is impossible to know. But what we do know is that similar cancellations—much larger ones, in fact—occurred when mask mandates were still in place, so the idea that such mandates can prevent cancellations is simply not true.
We also have fresh data on cancellations of US flights since the CDC’s mask mandate was lifted. One astute Twitter user analyzed the data, which can be found here, and pointed out that in the two weeks since the CDC’s mask order was struck on April 18, there was no widespread cancellation of flights.
Two weeks (!) since the airline mask mandate was lifted. Experts insisted there would be widespread cancellations due to staff illness. Cancellation rates of major US airlines so far today:— Eric (@The_OtherET) May 2, 2022
On the contrary, the four largest airlines in the US—American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines—all had a cancellation rate of 0 percent, as did JetBlue and Allegian. Frontier Airlines, meanwhile, had a cancellation rate of 1 percent, and Alaska Airlines had a cancellation rate of 7 percent. (Since the publication of the tweet, Alaska’s cancellation rate has fallen to 4 percent, and Delta’s has increased to 1 percent.)
The total number of canceled flights within, into, or out of the US in the past two weeks currently stands at 72—about 0.15 percent of the roughly 45,000 flights the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) oversees each day, on average.
‘One of the Great Mistakes’
To be sure, we’re still in a pandemic, at least in the sense that many people are still getting COVID-19, still getting sick, and still dying. This means that we can expect there will be times when flights are interrupted by spikes of illness.
That said, so far the data suggest that fears of widespread cancellation of flights in the wake of the mask mandate being lifted are baseless, thankfully.
In many ways, this should not surprise us.
Even mask champions like The New York Times have come around to the idea that cloth masks are not very effective against Covid, which is why many scientists have long doubted their efficacy. (And even if cloth masks are effective, are we really supposed to just overlook the fact that there’s a period of time on flights when patrons just remove them to eat and drink, which hardly seems like an effective virus containment strategy?)
None of this is to say masking isn’t or can’t be effective. Perhaps it is. But I think we have an abundance of evidence that shows mask mandates are not effective, and the absence of a surge in flight cancellations following the striking down of the mask mandate is one more piece of that evidentiary record.
I was an early mask adopter — & they make intuitive sense — but a growing body of evidence shows that mask mandates don't appear to make much difference at the community level. pic.twitter.com/wnfBUKcZuM— Liz Highleyman (@LizHighleyman) April 13, 2022
All of this brings to mind a crucial lesson of economics. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman once observed that one of the biggest problems of the modern world is how we assess public policy.
“One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results,” Friedman noted.
There’s no better example of Friedman’s adage, I think, than masks, which became a symbol of supporting “the common good,” which is why so many people publicly vowed to continue wearing them even after the CDC policy requiring them on transportation was struck down.
Tho it’s not mandatory and it’s a pain, I’m masking it for my flight today. For myself, for others. pic.twitter.com/spbl2jySsc— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) April 22, 2022
Wearing my mask no matter what non-scientists tell me I can do. pic.twitter.com/qel4mAG9H5— Valerie Jarrett (@ValerieJarrett) April 19, 2022
If people wish to continue wearing masks to show they’re not “selfish” or because they believe it will protect them, they are of course perfectly free to do so. That’s the beauty of choice.
But how much pain could have been avoided during this pandemic if only we’d embraced the freedom of choice from the beginning, instead of succumbing to fear?