It’s Complicated: A Flight Attendant’s Mixed Feelings On Masks
In case you’ve been living under a rock somewhere and hadn’t heard, on Monday, April 18 the federal mask mandate requiring passengers to wear face coverings in airports and airplanes was rolled back. Members of the flying public and airline staff will now have the option to travel without a mask.
People cheered, people booed, and I wrote.
For anyone new here, I’m a full-time Flight attendant. I was in the middle of a four-day trip when this news broke, so I got to see firsthand the immediate impact of maskless flights. And it was kind of surprising.
In today’s post I’m going to talk details on the policy change, why I have mixed feelings about it, and how it went—in real time.
Here we go.
On April 18, a Federal Judge struck down the mask mandate extension issued by the CDC, and the Biden administration announced it would no longer enforce mask wearing in public transport. Instead, it would be left up to individual airlines whether masks would be required in-flight.
One by one, US carriers all made announcements, and everyone was singing the same tune: No more mask enforcement. Face coverings became optional that very day.
This policy change is only in effect for American air carriers and for domestic flights. Some foreign destinations may still require mask-wearing as well as individual U.S. cities. LA, for example, still requires mask use on public transportation and in airport terminals, and Philadelphia requires mask wearing indoors. Non-U.S. airlines may keep mask mandates in effect for longer.
If you’ll be flying soon, be sure to check your air carrier’s website and your destination’s pandemic-specific rules.
Find more info here:
How Do I feel?
From the outcry of support I saw on social media Monday night, it seemed like everyone was happy. Passengers rejoiced, flight attendants rejoiced, airlines, not wanting to alienate their customers, definitely rejoiced.
But me? What does this flight attendant think about kissing masks goodbye?
Well, I feel mixed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to not have to enforce mask wearing anymore. This has been the biggest headache for flight attendants over the past two years and has made our jobs considerably less pleasant.
That being said, I have three friends who have COVID right now. Turns out it hasn’t actually gone away. Some cities, like Philadelphia, have reinstated mask rules for indoor establishments like restaurants and museums. And then there are the people with compromised immune systems who cannot get vaccinated, who will be at greater risk in public now.
I feel happy for my coworkers who have been dying to get rid of these masks, especially the ones based in Florida where the humidity can be brutal.
And I feel sad for the people who will be less protected, who may also feel left behind.
For myself, I just feel weird.
Imagine sheltering in place through the biggest hurricane your city has ever seen. The wind howls, the rain slaps against the buildings, trees sway and eventually break. And you listen from your place of relative safety inside, wondering if it’s actually safe. Whether the walls will hold. Now imagine it goes on not for hours, but for days, a week, a month. You find routines in the confines of your shelter. Sure, it’s small, but have you heard the pounding of the storm against it? The shifting of large objects like cars being pushed from their places? There’s always a chance the roof could just blow off, another casualty of the storm. Another one of many.
And then one day the noise just stops.
The door flings open. Everything is still.
It’s safe to go outside presumably, but after so long the daylight seems blinding, the silence eerie.
You might bolt through the door and go running on the still-wet streets. Scream “Glory!” to the rooftops, exult the end of the storm.
But you might not. You might instead take a cautious approach. One small step outside the doorway, look around, double check. Make sure it’s really okay first. You might move slowly and deliberately, a quiet hope it’s over but none of the singing joy of surety.
Trepidation. That’s what I feel.
And hella cynical.
It strikes me that this easing of rules will make the job easier and will make people appear to behave better. But they are not any better. Your good behavior today cannot negate the tantrum and verbal assaults you hurled on the plane last week. People acting decent now because they don’t have to wear a mask on the plane are not and never were decent. I’m not sorry.
Concerns & Benefits
My big concerns were these:
1. I worry about catching COVID and passing it to someone I love. I know three friends who currently have COVID. And I have a family member suffering from long COVID symptoms that have wreaked havoc on her life. She’s been out of work for months, with no sign of them subsiding.
2. I wondered if the vocal anti-maskers’ attitudes would disappear with their face coverings, or if they’ll find new reasons to abuse me at work. Was this a one-time thing, or will seat belt refusals see an uptick? Will they call me a laptop “Nazi” now instead? Will passenger fights spring not from a piece of cloth, but instead from a piece of plastic—the shared arm rest, for example?
3. I’ve also developed the habit of talking out loud to myself, in the airport and in the aisle. I sing softly while pouring coffee on the plane, and I mutter under my breath, but certainly out loud, when a passenger is especially annoying. It’s been a long time, and this habit will be difficult to break. I’ve enjoyed the privacy masks have given my face. I hope not to get myself in trouble.
4. I’m concerned that men will start giving me unsolicited opinions about my face once more and telling me to smile.
The things I’m looking forward to are simple:
1. Not having to have the same battle 2376265837723 times per flight.
2. Being able to read lips when someone cannot muster the energy to speak up to audible levels when ordering a beverage.
3. Wearing lipstick.
I can’t help thinking it just wasn’t that bad.
Am I going Maskless?
Knowing my concerns, you may be wondering what I’m going to be doing in the days that follow, when masking is no longer mandatory on the plane.
I’ve decided my actions will be as mixed as my feelings. I’m going to take things slowly.
I have always called myself a late adopter—not acquiescing to the latest trends, music, or technology, until they’re nearly on the way out. And maybe I’ll be the same with masks. For now, I’ll still be wearing them in the aisle to deliver beverage and snack service, and also when I’m assisting with boarding. For the rest of the flight, I’ll plan to be maskless.
This is a kind of compromise that makes me feel good about things. During the times in-flight with a lot of face-to-face interaction, I’ll protect myself (and by default, the other people I’ll interact with later). And the times when I’m interacting less, in my galley alone, or walking through the airport terminal, I’ll probably ditch the mask.
This isn’t a perfect system. It still leaves me open to catching and dispersing COVID. But it does take into account the most risky times in a flight and helps to mitigate that risk. This is a way for me to feel more comfortable and less reckless as we move away from mask use in air travel.
Or maybe I’ll just keep it on. Who knows.
How it actually went
I showed up early Tuesday morning, the day after the big announcement was made, to the Buffalo, NY airport, feeling trepidation. My mask was in my pocket, easily accessible. My concerns loomed before me. It had been a long, long time since I’ve been on the airplane without a mask. What would it be like? Would I feel comfortable taking it off? Or wearing it? Would people say rude things? Or be cheering in the terminal?
The way the day turned out surprised me a bit.
At the security check point I noticed a 50/50 split of people in masks and bare faced. It was a good visual reminder that I didn’t have to choose one or the other. I could do what was comfortable for me. Make my own mask policy. This put me at ease and prompted me to flush out my own masking stance (outlined above) that I’ll be practicing from here on out.
On the plane it was mixed as well. I saw many noses and mouths, but also N-95s and cloth coverings. It was weird, but not terrible.
“It’s been anticlimactic,” Rachel said towards the end of our second flight together. And she was right. None of the stuff I worried about came to pass. No snide remarks, no bickering amongst passengers, nobody engaging me about my thoughts on the matter—one of the things I worried about most.
I’ve explained my mixed feelings to you all now, but the thought of doing so on the spot, in the airplane or the airport, and to a complete stranger, makes me cringe. Especially if it came about alongside an “Isn’t it great to not have masks?” or a “You don’t have to wear that anymore, you know.”
I prayed I would not be subjected to any politically charged conversations at work, and, thankfully, happily, none of that occurred. We worked a flight from Buffalo to Orlando and then Orlando to Salt Lake City. Everybody minded their own business and it was basically a non-issue.
Day two we flew from Salt Lake city to New York’s JFK and then down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I started this second day hopeful because of the positive first day, but with a heightened level of anticipation because of the routes we were about to fly.
For those of you not in the airline industry, let me explain something. New York to South Florida is hell on wings. There is something about these routes that can harden even the sweetest flight attendant.
On an individual basis, we cannot generalize. People are all different, mixed, and there is good and bad on all flights. But we can say these routes (New York to South Florida) are more prone to having issues, and that the crowds have a tried and true reputation for being…difficult. Extra. Entitled.
The flight from Salt Lake City to JFK was an absolute dream. Nice passengers. Calm. Mostly unmasked, with a few face coverings sprinkled in the crowd. After a night of fun with friends in Salt Lake, a relaxing morning, and with this chill crowd, the work day could not have started any better.
The flight from JFK to FLL was mostly fine, too. Some run-of-the-mill pet issues were the only things of note, making it feel like 2019.
Maybe things will be okay.
At time of publishing I have not yet worked Day three. It will be a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Boston. I may be naïve or optimistic, but given how things have gone thus far, I’m feeling good about our flight. I don’t foresee any major issues occurring, but I will update this post if anything wild happens.
Fingers crossed for no updates.
even the best job ever is not all sunshine and rainbows.
Everything seems to be going swimmingly on the airplane with no masks. So…why am I still feeling so much?
Why am I feeling so much?
I asked myself why, when most of my coworkers seemed to be thrilled without hesitation, was I feeling so weird about unmasking? Why, when things went smoothly after implementation, did I still feel a sour sting coursing through me?
I’ve realized, through the process of writing this piece, that my feelings about this mask policy aren’t just about health and safety and comfort and mask-ne. The end of mask wearing at work opens the door for me to begin processing the whole thing, the Pandemic. The past two years. Something I guess I haven’t done. Something I didn’t think I needed to do.
And apparently, I feel a lot.
I feel let down.
I felt a pang of hope when everyone was “in it together” in the beginning. When pollution levels were cut and the flowers blossomed and animal populations increased, unimpeded by human activity. I felt hopeful that people would begin to value essential workers—so vital to all of our survival during the pandemic. I hoped people would see the need to look at healthcare not as a commodity for sale, but as a human right.
I had so many beautiful hopes.
And I feel so gray and grim looking at people swinging their masks like lassos. Unmoved by those at high risk. Unmoved by the plight of others. Empathy does not seem to exist in our culture and it’s crushing. I can’t help but look at masks as a symbol of this. I don’t care about the cloth. But it hurts to know how many people care only about themselves.
I feel resentful.
The last two years have been hard for flight attendants. They’ve been exhausting. They’ve shown us the worst in people.
We’ve been berated by passengers on a daily basis for doing a simple function of our job—enforcing rules we have no control over.
At the same time, we have been treated worse than ever by our companies. Our hours were cut, we were furloughed or asked to take leave, we lived with the uncertainty that comes from not knowing if your job will be there when the dust settles. We were given laughable, insulting contract proposals that were supposed to have been negotiated in good faith but included things like pay cuts and cementing flight attendants’ ability to work almost 20 hours in a day.
We were sent to lay over in places where we were forced to stay inside our hotel rooms with locked doors, not even taking a walk for fresh air.
We were asked to show up to stand in the aisle in the middle of 200 people, to speak to each one individually, in a time when being in close quarters with anyone was a serious health risk.
We were asked for proof that we were sick if we stayed home from work, and if we weren’t sick enough, we were given disciplinary points that could lead to employment review.
We were not informed until weeks after working with someone who tested positive that we’d been exposed to COVID. With no regard for our infants at home. Our special needs child. Our elderly parent we were caring for. Our own compromised immune system.
We were sent threatening emails when we called out sick, in the middle of a global pandemic.
Our schedules were altered at the last minute and we were, for all intents and purposes, held hostage at work—often into our days off.
Profit sharing was taken away. Incentive pay was cut. The airlines cried poor and then they all made record profits. They started offering billions of dollars to buy other airlines while their employees stood in line at food pantries, avoided going to the doctor when sick, and came to work COVID positive to keep a job.
Our industry has been crumbling around us.
We’ve been assaulted from all sides—companies and passengers—and through it all we have tried to hold out hope that things would get better eventually. Back to some semblance of the “good old days.”
But, just so we are clear, relationships must be judged not by how they fare on sunny days, but for how they weather storms.
Nearly every US airline has shown their employees how much they don’t care about their health or lives. And we will remember that.
People all over this country have shown how much they don’t care about one another, certainly don’t care about flight attendants or other essential workers. They’ve shown how every minor inconvenience can be turned into a toddler-esque temper tantrum in the airplane. We will remember this, too.
It’s hard for me to not feel cynical right now. It’s not my norm, and I don’t like the feeling. So hopefully it won’t last too long.
The only conclusion I can draw from this is that life goes on. The biggest, most talked about events, will cease to mean anything in the ever-moving conveyor belt of history. Someday this will all just be something that happened once.
We move on.
People agree, people disagree. People cheer and people lament. Some will mask and some will not, and as long as we are all respectful, I just can’t care too much.
I am happy to have not had any issues with the change in mask policy. I’m happy for those who this will benefit—deaf customers, parents of autistic children. I’m sorry for those who will be hurt by the rollback—those with compromised immune systems or very young children. I’m still mad at the bullshit I’ve been put through at work. I feel jaded having seen what I’ve seen in these two years. And all these mixed emotions will have to coexist inside of me until eventually I feel something more cohesive.
I’m still holding out hope. That my job will get better. That the increase in awareness of labor issues nation-wide will spark real change. That fewer people will get sick, and that of the ones who do, fewer will see severe or fatal outcomes.
I hope I can continue to “take the best and leave the rest”, a mindset essential to enjoying my job and maintaining good mental health.
I hope there is some chance of mending the frayed fabric of our society, at least a little bit, at some point.
In the meantime, I’ll take notice of small pleasures. Nice customers, superstar coworkers, a sunny layover, a freshly-baked cinnamon roll. The good stuff.
Wherever you are and however you feel, I hope you remain safe and healthy.
Please be kind to one another. <3