The timing could not be worse. Just as the busy holiday travel season gets underway, the omicron variant of coronavirus is quickly driving up the number of new Covid-19 cases around the country and compelling cities and states to impose a fresh round of face mask mandates.
Yet there’s little indication that American travelers are panicking over omicron as they did over the delta variant last summer, when a surge in coronavirus cases across the U.S. spurred many Americans to cancel their travel plans and slammed the brakes on the recovery of the travel industry.
Since the holiday travel period kicked off, airport security officers have screened more than 2 million airline passengers per day at U.S. airports, according to throughput data from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). That is roughly double the passenger volume of the same period last year, and about 82% of pre-pandemic numbers from 2019.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and top medical advisor to President Biden, appeared on several Sunday morning shows yesterday to offer advice on how Americans can safely navigate traveling during the holiday season and beyond.
Dr. Fauci stressed that being vaccinated and boosted greatly reduces the risk of experiencing severe illness or requiring hospitalization due to Covid-19. He also reiterated the importance of wearing face masks during the entire air travel process.
On “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd asked Dr. Fauci if Americans should be rethinking their holiday travel plans.
“I think people just need to be prudent. Clearly, when you travel, there is always a risk of increase infection that just goes with respiratory illnesses,” Fauci answered. “But if people need to travel and want to travel for the obvious family reasons during this holiday season, and if you’re vaccinated and you’re boosted and you take care when you go into congregate settings like airports to make sure you continually wear your mask, you should be okay.”
“Are we going to get to the point where we won’t have to wear masks on airplanes?” asked ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who was filling in as host on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Fauci. “I think when you’re dealing with a closed space, even though the filtration is good, that you want to go that extra step when you have people — you know, you get a flight from Washington to San Francisco, it’s well over a five-hour flight. Even though you have a good filtration system, I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do, and we should be doing it.”
Fauci’s responses came days after Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, tested positive for Covid-19 after testifying at a U.S. senate committee that face masks “don’t add much if anything in the air cabin environment.” Kelly is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot, a Southwest spokesperson told USA Today.
Also testifying at the hearing were American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, Delta Air Line COO John Laughter and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA).
Arguably the most eyebrow-raising revelations came from a five-minute period in which the top executives from major U.S. airlines all seemed to imply that wearing masks on flights is essentially unnecessary.
But following public backlash, the airlines executives have done some backpedaling.
Delta CEO Ed Bastien told CNBC he did not agree with the other airline executives’ assessment on the mask issue. “Particularly when we see omicron continuing to enter into our country, masks are going to be important as a safeguard for a while yet.”
Later, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker also took the opportunity to clarify his position on Instagram. “I agreed with my fellow CEOs that being onboard a plane is proven to be a safe and healthy indoor environment. I did so by saying, ‘I concur,’ and then talked about air quality. I didn’t mention masks or the federal mask mandate, but my concurrence was ambiguous and it is my fault for not being clearer in my response,” he wrote. “We support the federal mask mandate. Full stop. It was issued by the TSA and in consultation with CDC and other health experts to protect the safety and well-being of our customers and team members.”
In addition, Sara Nelson told the Dallas Morning News that Southwest’s Gary Kelly assured her that he supports the federal mask mandate.