Masks on planes are useless, especially when you take them off to eat

OPINION

Face masks could become a permanent feature of air travel, despite data showing that they're next to useless in a plane cabin.

I was encouraged to see on Twitter reports from a CNN travel journalist that several of the "cavalier" flight attendants on her BA flight were not wearing masks.

"I'm so angry," Julia Buckley huffed. "I even booked a seat in biz to feel safer, and the danger was in the galley right in front of me."

Looks to me like progress. It has been my fear that muzzle mandates would become another of one of those daft protocols forever absorbed into the permanent aviation safety doctrine, in the same way that, thanks to 9/11, we will never again be able to board a plane with a normal-sized tube of toothpaste in our hand luggage. It's certainly what White House medical advisor Anthony Fauci suggested over the weekend when asked by ABC whether we'd eventually get to a point where we won't have to wear masks on planes. "I don't think so," he stated.

Of course, there was outrage in response to Buckley's tweet thread, in which she posted a photo of a maskless cabin crew member standing alone sipping a drink by the coffee machine, and further complained: "Can't wait for my executive club gift of omicron to take home to the family for Christmas."

"Crikey. That's really shocking," read the first reply. "You would think the cabin crew would be worried about their own safety, if nothing else." The rest followed a similar theme.

Readers, it's time for a few fast facts. First, it goes without saying that if Buckley – believing, as presumably she does, that the cloth barrier between her face and the surrounding air really is critical in keeping her safe from COVID – dared, at any point during the flight, to lower her mask in order to eat or drink herself, along with the vast majority of her fellow passengers, then she's lost the argument, and all logic has left the cabin. Masks either work or they don't; the virus doesn't take a break at mealtimes.

Secondly, it might seem counterintuitive but even if no-one wore masks on flights at all, airline cabins would still provide about the safest environment you can be confined to when it comes to COVID transmission – far, far better than that of a bar, coffee shop or restaurant, where guests are seldom forced to wear them.

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Fauci himself conceded this on Sunday. "Even though you have a good filtration system [on planes], I still believe that masks are a prudent thing to do," he said, offering no more justification, after Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly stated: "I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment."

In reality, thanks to their hospital-grade HEP (high-efficiency particulate) filters, the air inside a plane cabin is changed more than 25 times an hour; a system that removes 99.97 per cent of airborne viruses and bacteria, states the International Air Transport Association (IATA).  

The data backs it up. According to the largest real-world study to date, conducted by Delta Air Lines, your chances of being exposed to COVID-19 on a flight whereby every passenger has tested negative (as per the policy on most routes) is less than 0.1 per cent. Separate findings from IATA, from early 2020 – crucially before the use of face masks on flights became common practice – identified just 44 cases of potential coronavirus infections among the 1.2 billion people who travelled by air in that period.

In short, for all the hysteria they attract, planes have never been a hot-bed for COVID transmission, and no scientist pretends otherwise. Rather, that accolade goes to hospitals – far and away your best setting in which to catch the virus – where absolutely everyone is masked up at all times, and have been for the best part of two years.

But such precautions aren't entirely useless when flying. Those little packages airlines hand out to passengers in their billions – the ones containing surgical masks, gloves and hand sanitisers – have at least been highly effective in reversing the industry's long-running crusade against single-use plastic. 

Indeed, if anyone should be getting their knickers in a twist over how, when and why masks should be used at 37,000 feet, it would rightly be the turtles, all those miles below, who shall be suffocating on them for many decades to come.

The Telegraph, London

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