In January 2021, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order requiring that travelers wear masks on public transportation—including on planes and in airports—to help prevent transmission amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was tasked with enforcing the order. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the TSA was acting within its authority when it required the traveling public to wear masks in the country’s air hubs and in-flight.
The ruling came in response to an argument brought before the court by Jonathan Corbett, a Hollywood, California–based lawyer, who claimed that the TSA’s federal duties to ensure the safety and security of travelers do not include matters of public health.
“This lawsuit is not about whether CDC, FAA, or any other agency had the authority to impose a mask mandate on the general public. It is about whether TSA did. Even during an emergency, TSA cannot assume the powers of another agency and regulate the environment, the stock market, the mail, the public health, or any other non-transportation security matter,” Corbett argued.
But on Monday, the Supreme Court denied Corbett’s request to overturn a December decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit affirming that the TSA does have the authority to maintain safety and security during national emergencies, including as it pertains to public health.
In April 2022, the federal transportation mask mandate that was ordered by the CDC and enforced by TSA was dropped after a federal judge in Florida ruled that U.S. health agencies failed to properly justify the mask order and did not follow proper federal procedures in implementing it. The decision resulted in a domino effect of mask restrictions being lifted across the country, including by the airlines, which had their own requirements in place alongside the federal one.
While the transportation mask order is no longer in effect, the CDC states that “for people aged 2 years or older—including passengers and workers—CDC recommends properly wearing a high-quality mask or respirator over the nose and mouth in indoor areas of public transportation (such as airplanes, trains, buses, ferries) and transportation hubs (such as airports, stations, and seaports).”
With no federal mask mandate in place, travelers may wonder how protected they are if they are the only ones wearing a mask on a crowded flight.
“There is definitely evidence showing that masks protect the wearer, even if they are the only one wearing one. Since the amount of protection depends on the quality and fit of the mask, I recommend N-95, KN-95, or KF-94 masks while traveling,” Dr. Shira Shafir, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health associate professor of epidemiology and community health sciences, told AFAR in April following the Florida ruling.
Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of public health at the University of California Berkeley, said that if everyone on the flight wears a mask, the risk of transmission is lower than if you’re the only one wearing one. But “between being up to date with vaccination and wearing a KN-95 you’ve very significantly mitigated your risk,” he said.