A Fine Mess Over Our
In-Flight Mask Mandate
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2022 -- What shall we discuss this week? The Super Bowl? The amazing commercials, including a remake of The Sopranos intro and an Austin Powers reunion? Crypto? The markets? The New York Knicks, who squandered three 20-point leads in ten days? Ukraine?

How about the in-flight mask mandate? Yeah, that's a topic worth talking about among frequent flyers.

As you surely recall, the CDC and the TSA originally imposed the mandate beginning February 2, 2021. It has been extended twice and is now due to expire on March 18. There are all sorts of political, social, legal, cultural and scientific currents impacting any decision to extend or end the mandate.

It's quite a coil, to be sure.

The legal situation, at least, does seem fairly clear. Opponents of the mandate have tried three separate times to get the Supreme Court to jump the legal queue and stop in-flight masking. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas have each turned away requests for an emergency stay. Justice Neil Gorsuch referred a third request to the full court and it collectively passed. In Chicago, a federal judge also nixed a move to stop the mandate via a stay. In fact, no court in the nation has ruled in favor of any type of challenge to the in-flight mandate, astounding when you consider that two-bit judges in third-rate jurisdictions have weighed in on masks in schools, churches, factories, offices, public spaces, hospitals, nursing homes, cop and fire houses and, for all I know, on reruns of What's My Line? when the mystery guest enters and signs in.

But the in-flight mask rule? Nearly 13 months without a legal nick or quibble.

This is worth noting because the grandstanding (and, by the way, indicted) Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week decided he would sue to stop the in-flight mandate. Given the deference courts at all levels pay the federal government when it comes to the airlines--the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 specifically empowers the feds as sole regulator--I don't see Paxton's case going anywhere.

Culturally, of course, everyone is tired of masks. Hence the recent rush to end mask mandates on the ground. Even those who want mask mandates aloft and on terra firm extended understand society's exhaustion. No one would be shocked if the feds simply allow the mandate to expire next month.

As to the science, well, I look at it this way: I don't care about HEPA filters or the quality of recycled air or the disinfecting of surfaces or any of that stuff. I keep it simple: If the flyer in the seat next to me has Covid and sneezes in my direction, I don't know how HEPA filters or disinfected surfaces would help. Even in premium classes, aircrafts are tight spaces. I'd like to know the person in the next seat--vaccine status and health unknown--is masked. And much as I personally dislike wearing them, I mask up as a matter of common decency.

Now we come to the ugly politics of it all. Given the speed at which the federal government is moving, I think it's a skosh early to expect the TSA or CDC to lift the mandate. Besides, the Biden Administration seems paralyzed by fear.

Remember last year, when they essentially declared victory against Coronavirus in time for the Fourth of July? Then they had to backtrack as the Delta variant and Omicron battered the unvaccinated and far too many of us vaxxed and boosted folks. Hits like that leave marks on politicians, especially in these polarized times. Politicians are timid folks by nature and getting a public knock makes them even more reticent. The easy thing to do is to let the mandate ride.

So where does that leave us?

My best guess: The in-flight mask mandate will get extended again, probably for another 60 days. That will bring us to mid-May, just about the time when Americans want to hit the road for Memorial Day. If the virus has further abated by then, the mandate can end and skittish pols can declare victory. If some other variant emerges or our progress against Omicron is reversed, another extension can be added.

Which brings us to a final point: the furious and infuriating upsurge of disgusting passenger behavior on flights. And we come to the old argument about causation and correlation. Maybe incidents like this week's shameful developments--domestic violence from a football player, anti-vaxxer at an emergency door, a coffee pot used a la a gruesome episode of The Sopranos--are caused by mask frustration, maybe they are not.

But why should any of this play into considerations about the in-flight mask mandate? Do we allow bad actors to control other rules and laws? Just because some people are garbage doesn't mean we should permit them to make our rules of decent behavior.

So there we are. A fine mess over something that really should be as cut and dried as an in-flight mask mandate. I think I will go live with those beat-boxing, Salt-N-Pepa-singing animals in the Doritos forest. They all seem happy, free of Covid, maskless and well supplied with snacks.