Traveling soon? Don't ditch that face mask. Mandate for planes extended through May 3

  • The federal transportation mask mandate, due to expire April 18, will be extended through May 3.
  • "In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases ... the CDC Order will remain in place at this time," reads a statement from CDC.
  • The seven-day moving average for COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has been rising since late March.

Travelers will need to mask up on planes, trains and buses through at least May 3.

The federal transportation mask mandate, announced in January 2021 and due to expire on Monday, will be extended 15 days  because of an increase in COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Associated Press first reported the extension.  

"Since early April, there have been increases in the 7-day moving average of cases in the U.S. In order to assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity, the CDC Order will remain in place at this time," reads a statement from CDC spokesperson Caitlin Shockey.  

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The seven-day moving average for coronavirus cases in the U.S. was nearly 30,500 on Monday, up 21% from the week before.

The CDC statement notes that the agency continues to monitor the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant, "especially the BA.2 subvariant that now makes up more than 85% of U.S. cases."

This is the fifth federal mask mandate extension and comes despite repeated pleas from airlines and other travel industry officials to drop it and other restrictions, including a coronavirus test requirement for travelers flying into the US.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday that "it's time to let the masks go and let people decide."

"I feel very strongly that the mask mandate should be lifted and let individuals including our own employees make their own decision and take personal accountability for their health onboard our planes,'' he said in an interview with CNBC.

Bastian said he may still wear a mask when he travels if he has a cold or is sick.

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In a letter Monday to new White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, Airlines for America, the U.S. Travel Association and two other business groups renewed their call for a repeal of the mask mandate. They say the rules no longer make sense given stable case trends, including falling hospitalizations, and are hurting travel demand.

"The science clearly supports lifting the mask mandate, particularly in the context of recent CDC guidance, which found that the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population no longer needs to wear masks indoors," the letter said. "Numerous studies and public health experts have demonstrated that planes are among the safest of indoor environments due to the superior ventilation and hospital-grade air filters on commercial aircraft."

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Attorneys general in more than 20 mostly Republican-led states filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the federal face mask requirement for transportation. In a written statement, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich called it a "ridiculously burdensome policy."

The new expiration date for the federal mask mandate will push the length of time U.S. airline passengers have had to wear a mask to the two-year mark. JetBlue Airways was the first carrier to impose a mask requirement, in early May 2020, and was quickly followed by competitors.

Airlines, unions and consumer advocates pushed the federal government for months to mandate the policy so flight attendants had backing when encountering passenger resistance, but they weren't successful until President Joe Biden took office.

In mid-January, Bastian said it was premature to speculate on when passengers would be able to fly without masks.

"Obviously, that's going to be driven by the medical experts and not by the airlines, and we'll follow their guidance," he said on the airline's quarterly earnings conference call.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly drew criticism at a Senate hearing in December 2021 for saying masks don't do much on planes. 

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"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment," Kelly said. "It is very safe and high-quality compared to any other indoor setting."

Some international airlines, including British Airways, no longer require masks, and mask mandates have been broadly lifted across the country 

When the Transportation Security Administration and CDC announced the one-month mask mandate extension in March, officials said they would use that time "to work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor."

"This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science," the agencies said in a statement at the time.

Contributing: Stephanie Innes, The Arizona Republic