May 18, 2022

On April 18, 2022, the federal transportation mask mandate suddenly ended in the United States, when a Florida judge ruled that the federal transportation mask mandate exceeded the authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We’ve seen a huge uptick in unruly passenger incidents on airplanes during the pandemic, so how has the mask mandate ending impacted that? Quite favorably, it seems.

Unruly passenger incidents fall sharply

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been keeping close tabs on unruly passenger incidents during the pandemic, given the huge increase we saw in passengers behaving poorly. It looks like things are finally starting to improve on that front.

With the federal transportation mask mandate having ended, the rate of unruly air passenger incidents has dropped to the lowest level since late 2020. For the week ending April 24, there were 1.9 reported incidents per 10,000 flights, compared to 4.4 reported incidents per 10,000 flights the week before.

This sharp drop in unruly incidents shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since 70% of reported incidents involved enforcement of masking rules.

In early 2021, the FAA introduced a zero-tolerance approach for unruly passenger behavior, whereby passengers could face a significant fine or jail time for their first incident (rather than a warning). While this is the right idea, it has been hard to enforce, given that it ultimately comes down to airlines and airport police to enable the FAA to take action.

Fewer airline passengers are misbehaving

My first experience flying maskless

I’ve been outside the United States for the past couple of weeks, and finally had my first domestic flight within the United States on Tuesday. This was also my first maskless flight in over two years. I flew from Dallas to Tampa, and on a full flight with 150+ passengers, I saw four passengers wearing masks during boarding (in fairness, this was a flight between Texas and Florida, so…), and no flight attendants wearing masks.

While a single flight isn’t a big enough sample size to draw any conclusions, I do have to say that the “atmosphere” onboard was noticeably more upbeat than before. Maybe it’s a function of finally being able to see peoples’ faces and expressions, but it felt materially different than any other flight I’ve taken since the start of the pandemic.

The crew seemed genuinely happy and excited, and specifically noted how they were so happy they no longer had to police masks. And similarly, passengers all seemed to be getting along too.

Interestingly on April 18, American Airlines resumed alcohol service in economy, so it’s nice (and not surprising) to see that this didn’t suddenly lead to an increase in unruly behavior.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting the mask mandate should have ended so that passengers can be happier. Rather I’m just saying that I’m not surprised that the “problem” leading to unruly behavior was primarily masks, and not alcohol.

I had my first maskless pandemic flight this week

Bottom line

The week that the federal transportation mask mandate ended, the United States saw the fewest unruly passenger incidents we’ve seen since 2020. In one week we went from 4.4 to 1.9 cases per 10,000 flights.

It’s nice to see that passengers are starting to behave better again. I’m sure that’s a huge relief for airline crews, given the tough spot they were put in.

Are you surprised to see such a drastic drop in unruly passenger incidents? If you’ve flown since the mask mandate ended, what was your experience with passenger behavior?

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