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Opinion: A word to the wise — if you’re mask-averse, stay out of the skies

I’m not sure what’s happened to common decency, but adjusting to social norms has never been as difficult as it seems to be today

A Delta Airlines pilot wears a face mask as he walks through a terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
A Delta Airlines pilot wears a face mask to help prevent the spread of coronavirus as he walks through a terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Pandemic-fueled stress has manifested in many places over the past 18 months. Grocery store outbursts, verbal assaults on the subway and endless tirades across social media. 

But many of the most worrisome displays of aggression have happened well above sea level, where some airplane passengers have taken out their frustrations in shocking ways: knocking  out the teeth of a flight attendant, making threatening gestures, yelling expletives, assaulting fellow passengers, throwing food and an empty liquor bottle, hitting a crew member with luggage or animalistic screaming and growling.

Each of these despicable acts happened at the hands of passengers refusing to comply with the seemingly simplest of requests: the proper wearing of a face covering. Despite a preponderance of data and studies showing the efficacy of face masks, more than 18 months into this pandemic many mask deniers still refuse to believe the CDC and scientists touting their protective benefits in certain circumstances, including air travel.

And the aforementioned incidents are hardly isolated. The TSA has received more than 4,000 mask-related incident reports this year alone, with the FAA reporting that more than 70% of all disorderly passenger incidents stem from commuters refusing to wear a mask.  

Beyond being embarrassed for my fellow travelers, I’m puzzled because most of the anti-maskers I know were among the most vocal critics of 2020’s lockdown measures, with many of them saying at the time that businesses should be allowed to adapt and remain open as they saw fit. And yet, now that the travel industry has found a way to do exactly that and is finally hobbling back to life, it seems some of the same people are the ones pushing back against measures that make air travel safer and more inviting.

Furthermore, it’s perplexing to me that such individuals choose to wait until they are onboard the aircraft to cause trouble and air their grievances. If they were going to refuse to wear a mask, why agree to the policy when purchasing the ticket or checking in? On the many flights I’ve been on throughout the pandemic, the condition to wear a face covering was repeated many, many times throughout the booking and check-in process, in addition to countless signs and announcements at the airport. Pleading ignorance isn’t an option, and it’s disingenuous to agree to something only to throw a fit about it after the fact.  

In some cases, passengers have even sought sympathy from others after crew members enforced the rules in the exact manner the airline said they would.

One Oklahoma woman, for instance, posted a video that went viral when she and her 2-year-old son were seemingly removed from an American Airlines flight because the toddler wasn’t wearing a face covering. (The company’s website says that children under 2 are exempt from wearing a face covering, as are passengers with certain medical conditions if they clear it with the airline ahead of time.)

Scores of social media accounts and right-wing media personalities covered the story as an atrocity against American Airlines without seeming to recognize the irony that many such personalities spent last year defending police officers for “enforcing the law” and telling viewers ”if you don’t want to get in trouble, don’t break the rules.”

Though I certainly feel compassion for any parent who suffers the embarrassment and inconvenience of being asked to exit an aircraft. The incident reminded me of the first several times I tried to get my then 2-year-old son to wear a face covering last year. Just like he sometimes hates to be buckled in his car seat or used to refuse to wear shoes of any kind when we went out, he completely rebuffed our initial attempts to get him to wear a mask. Over time, however, he got used to it and by the time he boarded a flight with the rest of the family last year, he wore his face mask without complaining throughout the flight. (Something this woman’s son eventually did as well when his family was rebooked on the next American Airlines flight later that same day after they agreed to ”adhere to policies instituted for the safety of our customers and crew.”)

There’s also a case to be made that important context is almost always missing when incidents like this one go viral. After all, none of the people I saw highlighting the incident on social media mentioned that in addition to not wearing a face covering, the toddler in question was also walking in the aisle of the aircraft while it was taxiing. In fact, his incompliance “with crew member instructions to remain seated while on an active taxiway” was one of the two reasons the airline gave for asking the family to deplane. 

Anyone who’s ever flown knows that getting out of your seat in such circumstance is a serious infraction. For that matter, so is failing to put up your seat and tray table, smoking in the lavatory, attempting to use the cellular data on your phone, or trying to eat peanuts when the flight attendant just told you about the nut allergy in seat 14B.

I’m not sure what’s happened to common sense and common decency, but adjusting to social norms and adhering to protective measures has never been as difficult as it seems to be today. 

Pre-pandemic, Americans knew how to adapt to and tolerate new rules and guidelines. After 9/11, when the TSA started asking passengers to take shoes off at airport security checkpoints and to limit liquid containers to 3.4 ounces, I don’t remember a significant increase in airport assaults or anyone trying to knock the teeth out of TSA agents charged with enforcing the new measures. 

Maybe we were just lucky that such rules predated the age of rage and misinformation ushered in by social media when radical theories, dangerous agendas and falsehoods flourish endlessly. 

I understand that today scores of people are misled — intentionally or not — on such platforms about the efficacy of masks, but whether someone believes in the scientifically proven protections that masks provide really isn’t the issue anymore. At this point, airline mask requirements are here to stay until at least Jan. 18, 2022 , a fact that all would-be travelers must accept for adults and nonexempt children alike. 

Americans are and always will be asked to obey laws and regulations, no matter how inconvenient or frustrating they may be. Doing so is not only how order is maintained, but during a pandemic it’s how small businesses, professional sports leagues and even airlines are able to remain open. 

Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.