The Importance of Masks on Planes


I took a flight from Frankfurt to Mexico City a few days before New Year’s Eve.  According to the latest edition of the German infection protection law, everybody on the flight had to provide proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid 19 or a negative test result before boarding. The mask mandate still applied, though and the flight attendants tried hard to make sure everybody complied.

I don’t think that there was a single passenger who dared to take the mask off completely. But there were many who pulled it down under their noses, who didn’t put back on fast enough when they had sip off water or took longer than necessary to sip their coffees. The flight attendants were fighting a losing battle and it took a toll on them.

There was one lady in particular who clearly had come to hate most passengers and her job. She was battling the Russian girl in the row behind me the entire flight. 12 hours. The blonde Russian girl could not have been older than 14 and had an innocent look about her. But she was a one child insurgency and never stopped fighting.  That mask rode down her nose the second the flight attendant turned her back.

Revolution and Subversion

The elderly woman sitting next to her, probably her grandmother, aided and abetted her struggle by being quietly complicit. The revolutionary refused to be tamed or intimated, even though the exasperated flight attendant in the end called her boss, the purser, to give her a stern talking to. To no avail. The moment the purser left, down went the mask.

The young Dutch couple on the seats next to me was more cunning about the subversion of the rules, but they had their masks pulled down for a large part of the flight. I started to fear for the mental health of the flight attendant locked in battle against the Russian. Her face and body clearly communicated her anguish, but she still managed to keep the friendly sing song going whenever she addressed the passengers. The incongruence was striking and a little worrying.

The Russian girl was the most formidable opponent, but she wasn’t the only one. There were several people just in the few rows I could observe who obviously hated the way the masks make breathing through the nose uncomfortable and were pulling their masks down as soon as they felt unobserved. I understand where they’re coming from; I suffer from chronic sinusitis and wear glasses. I will admit that I too, tend to stretch out my drinking breaks.

The Nail in the Casket

The new role the flight attendants have to play could be the final nail in the casket of the flight experience. Long gone are the days when working on airplanes was the stuff dreams of seeing exotic places were made of. But even though the fun has gone out flying for passengers and staff a while ago, before the pandemic, the vast majority attendants managed to put their game faces on and deliver a friendly, professional service.

Having to police the way people wear masks on planes seems to have fundamentally changed the way in flight staff relates to passengers. There always have been unruly passengers and confrontations, of course, but these used to be the exceptions. Now, situations like the one girl Russian revolution I witnessed are bound to happen all the time.

Workers on planes must be close to the breaking point. They are doing a tough, stressful and not terribly well- paid job in any case. Thanks to the mask mandate, attendants are now forced to constantly treat a considerable minority of passengers in a way these passengers will perceive as bullying and intrusive.

Flying is set to become an even more unpleasant experience and planes will remain an important battleground in the culture war between deeply divided segments of the population.  Incidents of air rage are already at an all-time high and compliance with the mask mandate has become a morally charged issue, with the “reasonable” majority in favour of strictly enforcing mask mandates on all flights.

Is this really the reasonable position when access to planes is as tightly controlled as it was on my flight from Frankfurt to Mexico City, though?  Mask mandates on airplanes were introduced in May 2020, i.e. before rapid tests were available and before large parts of the population of the globe were vaccinated.

Following the Science

At that time, it was possible to board a flight with symptoms of respiratory disease and without health documentation of any kind.  For example, in March 2020 a Vietnamese businesswoman with a sore throat and a cough boarded a flight in London. Ten hours later, she landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. She allegedly infected 15 people on the flight, including more than half of the passengers sitting with her in business class.

These days are long gone. It’s all but impossible to board a plane without providing a negative test result or proof of vaccination. The sense of what is acceptable behaviour when it comes to running the risk of infecting others has fundamentally changed. The story of the fully vaccinated, boosted and PCR tested American teacher who still tested herself on the lavatory of the plane she was on and decided to quarantine on said lavatory when she received a positive result is a case in point.

Following the science is a popular slogan when it comes dealing with the risk of infection with Covid 19. According to the largest real-world study to date, conducted by Delta Air Lines, the chances of being exposed to Covid-19 on a flight on which every passenger has tested negative is less than 0.1 per cent.

Separate findings from the International Air Transport Association  (IATA), from early 2020 – crucially before the use of face masks on flights became common practice – identified just 44 cases of potential coronavirus infections among the 1.2 billion people who travelled by air in that period. It seems that, if we decide to follow the science, the risk of contracting a corona virus infection on an airplane is low.

Following the science also means acknowledging that the studies which support the efficacy of masks in planes were done with mannequins that were sitting straight forward, never removing their masks, without eating and drinking. In the ideal word of the laboratory, it’s easy to maintain “rigid masking” conditions.

This aspect of the problem deserves closer consideration, not just when it comes to using masks on planes. How do people actually use face masks? Is the rigid masking that the protective effect of wearing masks is predicated on practiced by many people? Observation of myself and just about everybody I know strongly suggest one answer: no, absolutely not.

One more or less filthy mask is used over and over again, taken on and off all the time, pulled down to drink, eat or speak on the phone. Masking makes sense if it is done right and in the right context, i.e. short encounters in uncontrolled spaces like the line at the supermarket check-out.

Doing it right means putting on the mask tightly, without touching it or removing it, disposing of it after use. Even when used correctly, masks just reduce the risk of infection, they don’t eliminate it. It stands to reason that the use of masks in the shoddy fashion that is so very common provides a lower protective effect, especially when sitting next to people in a confined space for 12 hours.

Safer than Restaurants

Coming back to the specific situations on planes:  even if no-one wore masks on flights at all, airline cabins would still provide about the safest environment you can be confined to when it comes to COVID transmission. Planes are far safer than bars, coffee shops or restaurants, where guests are not forced to wear masks once they are seated.

In reality, thanks to their hospital-grade HEP (high-efficiency particulate) filters, the air inside a plane cabin is changed more than 25 times an hour; a system that removes 99.97 per cent of airborne viruses and bacteria, states the IATA.

Would “rigid masking”, i.e. wearing masks like they are worn in a laboratory setting reduce the risk even further? It probably would. Would wearing a face shield reduce the risk of infection even further?  It probably would. Would wearing surgical gloves at all times reduce the risk of infection even further? It probably would. Would staying at home and not interacting with anybody reduce the risk of infection? It certainly would.

Would living a life with safety as the highest goal be a life worth living, though? It might be for a minority of people. In other contexts, we would start wondering if these people suffer from some form of mental illness. In everyday parlance, we’d call them germophobes. Psychologists might interpret their excessive concerns with cleanliness and safety as symptoms for obsessive compulsive disorder.

Risky Business

It seems odd that it needs to be said, but life is an inherently risky business and death is the only certainty. Human beings as a group and we as individuals have far less control over our lives than we like to admit. On the group level, environmental degradation and global warming as unintended side effects of the amazing successes of industrialisation and technological progress are a case in point.  On the individual level, you might fall ill with cancer or slip in the shower and crack your head open at any time, no matter how much you exercise, eat well and think positive thoughts.

A “normal” life, a life worth living, not one shrouded in constant anxiety, is predicated on forgetting these unpleasant facts most of the time. It is a predicated on a healthy fatalism and the ability to lose oneself. The English philosopher Alan Watts put it well in his classic book the “Wisdom of Insecurity”: “Indeed, one of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one’s own existence, to be absorbed in interesting sights, sounds, places, and people. Conversely, one of the greatest pains is to be self-conscious, to feel unabsorbed and cut off from the community and the surrounding world.”

Having to wear a face mask induces a heightened level of self-consciousness. Wearing a mask ourselves and seeing others wearing masks serves as a constant reminder that we are in danger, that we shouldn’t relax, that a certain level of constant anxiety is appropriate.  Making masks mandatory on planes and in other highly controlled environments might have made sense at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a lot of uncertainty and rapid testing, vaccines and medication weren’t available. It doesn’t make sense now. 

An Endless Emergency?

We are at the point where the remedy has become more toxic than the poison. Irresponsible clickbait reporting by all kinds of media outlets, not just tabloids, has contributed to creating an atmosphere of a seemingly endless emergency. The lockdowns have caused a lot of suffering for the most vulnerable people across the globe, for example, while the benefits of the policy are far from certain.

It is time to get back to what we already knew but seem to have forgotten: “Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.” ( quoted from the  paper, “Disease Mitigation Measures in the Control of Pandemic Influenza”, 2006,  Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, now known as the John Hopkins Center for Health Security)

The situation on planes is a good case in point: access to planes is more restricted than any other means of public transport. It is highly unlikely that an infectious passenger will be able to get on board. Even if  they did, planes, due to their air filtration systems, are very safe environments. And even if somebody did get infected, the hospitalization rate for the vaccinated population is 0.01% or 1 in 10,914. Let’s take into consideration what science has to teach us, but let’s understand that science is just a method of inquiry, dealing in probabilities.

Good science can tell us something about the way things are, it has little to say about the way things ought to be. The way things ought to be, the way we want to live, is the stuff that debates in democratic societies should be made of. Instead, we have to a situation where this debate has turned into a kind of civil war.  An overriding concern for safety, so extreme that it borders on the fanatical has asserted itself and the discourse has become morally charged beyond all logic and reason.

A Breath-Retention Contest

A free society is a society where people have the right to be foolish and take risks. We should limit the detrimental effects of such behaviour on others as much as possible. But we need to accept that any meaningful notion of freedom is incompatible with desperate attempts of completely eliminating such effects. We run the risk of creating a society where a child, like the Russian girl I observed on the plane, gets treated like a criminal for failing to comply with a regulation which has little utility beyond creating an environment of tension and anxiety.

The trend towards chasing an illusion of safety is nothing new, it has just been accelerated by the advent of digital technology and the onset of the pandemic. We would do well to heed the advice given by Alan Watts several decades ago: “The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”