Aboard one of the last masked flights: Here's how crew, passengers found out masks weren't required

BURLINGTON, Vt. – The alerts began pinging our phones an hour before our flight: "Federal judge voids U.S. mask mandate for planes and public transportation."

But no one knew exactly what it meant. Now? Tomorrow? Who would tell us officially? Would someone tell us?

Our United Express pilot was unsure. She checked with her bosses after hearing the news. Transportation Security Administration officers were similarly unsure. They were also checking with their bosses.

Even White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in Monday's news briefing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department were all "reviewing the judge's decision." A few hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa said the federal mask mandate exceeded the authority of the CDC.

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So here I and my fellow passengers to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., sat in our masks in the carpeted waiting area of Gate 8 – watching through the windows as twilight settled over Mount Mansfield. 

The masking requirement for travelers was the target of months of lobbying from the airlines, the Flight Attendants Association and congressional Republicans, which sought to remove it. The carriers argued that effective air filters on modern planes make transmission of the virus during a flight highly unlikely.

The mandate caused all kinds of tension, especially on long flights where people sit shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, unmasked, as they ate and drank. 

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USA TODAY reporter Trevor Hughes on a United Express flight to Dulles International Airport on April 18, 2022.

I recently returned from covering the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and European airlines were insisting everyone wear an N-95 type mask. And I didn't witness any complaints. 

Personally, I've been flying in a cloth mask on U.S. carriers as I bounce around the country. I know it's not as effective as an N-95 – which I wore religiously for the first two years of the pandemic – but I also recently spent two weeks in refugee shelters in Moldova and Ukraine, where vaccination rates hover at about 40%. 

Meanwhile, I have my two vaccine shots and a booster, and because I was visiting my elderly parents in Vermont, I tested before leaving home. (The test was negative.)

As we began boarding the small regional jet that would carry us to Dulles, the airport's overhead speakers made an all-too-familiar announcement: "You must wear a mask over your nose and face, and maintain a 6-foot distance from other people when possible."

Aboard the jet, the flight attendant was wearing the standard-issue blue United face mask, and she announced the standard face mask policy to passengers without acknowledging the change. 

As my plane prepared to taxi to the runway, the pilot came on the overhead speakers to make the usual announcements about flight time and destination weather. 

At the terminal, before she entered the cockpit, she confided that she would be happy to stop wearing a mask as soon as she got the official word. She said it was possible the policy change would be formally conveyed at any time.  

She added that while she understands the frustration flyers feel, she wasn't about to change policy on her aircraft without formal notification.

An hour earlier, United Airlines told USA TODAY:

Effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports.

While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit.

We will continue to closely monitor the situation in the event of changes.

So after we boarded and took our seats, on what may be my last masked flight, our pilot said nothing to the other passengers.

United publicly announced the policy change via Twitter as my plane taxied to the runway.