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Airplane Covid Theater May Never End

If TSA's endurance is any indication, maskless air travel may be a thing of the past.

In the fall of 2020, Lancet Infectious Diseases published an editorial posing the question, “What does the future hold for travellers?” The authors envisioned cuts to beverage and meal services, compulsory Covid-testing, enhanced cleaning practices, mandated masking, and the increased implementation of touchless technologies would become staples of air travel’s new normal.

“Following the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, travellers adapted to enhanced security controls in airports and strict rules regarding their luggage,” the authors wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic may similarly redefine what is normal for travellers…” 

At the time, some of the authors’ predictions—like required masking and additional cleaning measures on planes—had already come to pass. Since then, authorities have imposed testing requirements for most air travelers flying into the United States and vaccination requirements for non-citizens and non-immigrants, no doubt due in part to the rise of the Omicron variant.

Many think the next logical step to protect airline passengers from Covid is compulsory testing or vaccination for domestic travel, and bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate to codify that in law. 

Members of Congress have tried to bypass normal legislative processes by petitioning President Joe Biden to issue a vaccine mandate for domestic air travel and sending a letter to CDC and FAA officials, urging them to require domestic flight passengers to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test before boarding a plane.

Although Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg gave no indication that the Biden administration would pursue a Covid-vaccine requirement when questioned on the matter in an interview with Meet the Press, some, like Captain Jason Kunisch, are skeptical.

Kunisch, a commercial airline pilot with 20 years of experience in the aviation industry, is one of the co-founders of the medical freedom organization the U.S. Freedom Flyers. In a phone interview, he told The American Conservative, “If citizens don’t stand up and fight for their rights…then the threat of these vaccine mandates for travel for passengers is extremely real.”

He and his compatriots at the U.S. Freedom Flyers, based on their experience in the aviation industry and a familiarity with the relevant scientific literature, also question whether air travel in the time of Covid is really as dangerous as some make it out be. 

Capt. Jessica Sarkisian, a 24-year captain and one of the U.S. Freedom Flyers’ other co-founders related in a phone interview, “My experience in the last year and a half with COVID is that we’ve been flying safely in the skies and…there haven’t been any issues with people getting sick on airplanes.”

Both Sarkisian and Kunisch cited a report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and funded by Airlines for America, a trade association to which most of the major airlines in the United States belong to support their position. According to the report, “[A] layered NPI [non-pharmaceutical intervention] approach, of wearing face masks, disinfection of surfaces and maintenance of appropriate ventilation gate-to-gate, will ensure the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission onboard aircraft will be below that found in other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out.” 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reiterated these points in a statement, claiming that “the aircraft cabin remains a very low risk environment for contracting COVID-19 even though Omicron appears to be more transmissible than other variants in all environments.” The IATA similarly cited air filtration, masking, and enhanced cleaning measures as contributing factors to the low risk of Covid transmission on aircraft.

Steven Templeton, a professor of immunology and microbiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine-Terre Haute, who has experience studying coronaviruses and working at the Health Effects Laboratory Division at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, largely agrees with these assessments.   

Speaking in a phone interview, Templeton said, “[When] you’re having the entire load of air within an aircraft cabin changed every two to three minutes, that’s phenomenal ventilation. You really don’t get that in most buildings…[So] unless you’re in really, really close proximity [to an infectious person] it almost exponentially lowers the ability of particles to be exchanged between people.”

Practically, he said, this is evidenced by the fact that “before there was a pandemic, you never really saw outbreaks of respiratory viruses on airplanes unless there was an issue with the ventilation system,” as was the case in one classic example he related:

In 1977 a passenger had influenza on an airplane that was basically locked on, stuck on the tarmac for three hours without functioning ventilation…The air handling system was shut down completely. About a week later…some large percent of other passengers actually came down with the flu but that was a really extraordinary circumstance. I mean, you’d have to have something like that happen in order to have a major COVID outbreak on an airplane.

When asked about the likelihood that other Covid-mitigation measures beyond good ventilation could further reduce the risk of transmission on a plane, Templeton said he remains unconvinced.

On his popular science Substack, Templeton wrote in detail about what he sees as the lack of scientific support for the use of most masks. When interviewed, he said, “It appears cloth masks in their best-case scenario would buy you minutes. The best-case scenario for changes in air quality or improvement in ventilation would buy you hours.”

With regard to vaccine requirements, he added, “I think it’s clear that the [Covid] vaccines don’t protect against infection and transmission like we thought they initially would.” Numerous recent studies seem to support this assertion. 

Researchers in Qatar demonstrated that the protection offered by the vaccine against infection “peaks in the first month after the second dose, and then gradually wanes in subsequent months.” However, they continue to provide protection against hospitalization and death. 

Using viral load as a proxy for infectiousness, Israeli researchers showed the Covid-19 vaccines to be “initially effective in reducing viral loads…[but their] effectiveness declines with time after vaccination, significantly decreasing at 3 months after vaccination and effectively vanishing after about 6 months.”

In recent days, numerous blue-state political leaders have announced they would loosen Covid restrictions in their states. Whether this is the result of political expediency or an acknowledgment of the lack of evidence for their policies is unclear.

This of course raises the question of whether airline Covid restrictions will also be loosened.

According to the TSA website, masking on planes will continue to be required at least through March 18, 2022. However, what happens after March 18 remains to be seen. There is no guarantee the policy won’t be extended, as has happened several times before.

Further, the CDC is not quite ready to give up on masks. Anthony Fauci has even suggested in the past that masks on planes may never go away and mandatory vaccines for domestic air travel should be considered.

Given the current pendulum swing, however, Fauci and the CDC may come around soon enough.  

It may be worth reflecting on the analogy to the September 11 attacks made by the authors of the Lancet editorial, an analogy that may be more apt than they perhaps initially thought. Following those attacks, travelers indeed adapted to a number of enhanced security measures. Those attacks redefined what was normal for air travel. Ever since, however, lonely voices have asked: How much of this is truly necessary? How much of this actually makes people safer?  

In a 2008 interview with the Atlantic, security expert and TSA critic Bruce Schneier stated, “Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

Yet not long thereafter, the TSA rolled out full-body scanners in spite of criticism from tech journalists and scientists. Today, just over 20 years since September 11, it’s clear the days of pre-9/11 air travel may never return. 

Daniel Nuccio holds master’s degrees in both psychology and biology. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in biology at Northern Illinois University and is a regular contributor for the College Fix and The Brownstone Institute.




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