Health

The Biden Administration Is Ignoring The Science On Airplane Masking

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
Font Size:

One of the least likely environments to catch COVID-19 in remains one of the last places Americans are still required to wear masks.

President Joe Biden reportedly threatened to veto a bill making its way through Congress which would end the mask mandate on U.S. airlines. Earlier this month, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), at the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), extended the mask mandate for public transit, including on flights, into April.

All fifty statewide indoor mask mandates have either already ended or are set to expire soon. The CDC is no longer recommending indoor masking for Americans in a majority of counties under its new guidance, which only recommends masking in high-risk areas based on transmission and hospitalizations.

Yet, with most public health authorities at the national, state and local levels moving away from forced masking, airline passengers are still required to wear them, and Biden apparently will not let Congress rid Americans of that burden. This is despite the fact that airplanes are one of the safest environments out there from a COVID-19 standpoint, compared to places masks are no longer required, like concert venues, residential buildings or bars and restaurants.

The majority of modern commercial flights in the United States are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. These filters are considered the “gold standard” of air filtration systems, says Columbia University chemical engineering professor Faye McNeill. “HEPA is the international gold standard for filtering particles — it means that 99.97 percent of particles 0.3 microns in diameter are trapped. For context, a human hair is 50 microns across.”

HEPA filters have been a recommended tool to fight COVID-19 by experts since early on in the pandemic, with many places like schools and offices putting them in rooms to improve air quality. HEPA filters remove COVID-sized particles with 99.97% efficiency, according to a study done by NASA. A 2020 Harvard study found that flying on airplanes can be safer during the pandemic than grocery shopping.

About 40% of air on planes is filtered through the HEPA system, and the remaining 60% comes in fresh from outside the cabin. (RELATED: Congressional Republicans File Lawsuit Against CDC To End Mask Mandate For Air Travel)

Johns Hopkins infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja said the risk of flying isn’t significant compared to any other normal activity. “Transmission on a plane of COVID-19 is not very common because of the (air) circulation and because of the mask wearing.” He’s just one of many experts to arrive at the same conclusion.

The CEOs for Southwest Airlines and American Airlines testified before a Senate committee in December that there isn’t much of a need for masks on airplanes due to the filtration systems. “The statistics I recall is that 99.97% of airborne pathogens are captured by the [high efficiency particulate air] filtering system, and it’s turned over every two or three minutes,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly explained to lawmakers. “It’s very safe, and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

American, Delta, United, Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant Airlines all say they have HEPA filters equipped on their aircraft.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that airplanes are one of the places a person is least prone to catching or spreading COVID-19, the United States under Biden continues to lag behind the rest of the world on removing COVID-19 restrictions in that setting. The United Kingdom, for example, announced that all of its travel restrictions for COVID-19, including masking on airplanes, will end Friday.

The science Americans are told to follow says that they are safer from COVID-19 on airplanes than in restaurants, at a concert, in an arena or at the workplace office, but only one of those places still mandates from the federal government that they wear masks that are proven to be minimally effective against the Omicron variant of COVID-19.