Sharmy Aldama has spent the majority of her career enforcing mask rules on airplanes. The Miami-based flight attendant, who works for a budget carrier and spoke on the condition that her employer not be named so she could talk freely, started the job in late 2018. After the pandemic began, getting passengers to follow masking rules became an everyday struggle.
“I definitely got to a point where I was showing up to work ready to be argued with and bickered with and having to defend myself,” she said.
But since a federal judge struck down the mask mandate for planes and other transportation settings last week, she has noticed a lighter mood among passengers and crew and has felt a personal sense of relief. “Being able to just show up [to work] and give people what they need and not have to be on guard all the time has been so refreshing,” she said.
Flight attendants are among the public-facing employees who have been tasked with enforcing health and safety requirements during the pandemic, and they have faced hostile and even violent interactions with passengers as a result. Through Tuesday, there have been 1,272 unruly passenger incidents this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, with 807 of those related to masks.
The Justice Department said last week that it would appeal the ruling, but for now masks are optional on planes. Flight attendants such as Aldama are experiencing a range of emotions, from elation to anxiety.
Despite the easing tension, Aldama feels enough concern to put her mask back on at times. “I definitely do have moments where I hear somebody coughing really loud for like 45 minutes, and I’m like, ‘I think I’m gonna go ahead and protect myself,” she said.
Christa Gifford, a Las Vegas-based flight attendant for Allegiant Air and president of Transport Workers Union of America Local 577 had similar health concerns the couple times she has flown since the policy change. While she’s glad she no longer has to enforce the rule, Gifford said, “That was in my head all day both days: I hope I don’t get sick, I have places to go … And then I think about my co-workers, and how easily we could spread it. We already have a staffing shortage, and so something like this could potentially make that even worse.”
Some overseas airlines that dropped mask requirements have already faced those issues.
The airline industry has contended that passengers face a very low risk of contracting COVID on a plane. That has been debated, with independent researchers saying that while the threat is not high, it is not possible to assess with total accuracy. After the mask rule was scrapped last week, some health experts told The Washington Post that travelers should continue wearing face coverings on planes.
While Gifford estimates that three quarters of passengers and crew flew without masks, much the way they would have in 2019, her perspective has changed over the past few years.
“I don’t think we’ll ever feel like we did pre-pandemic, because I always think it’s going to be in the back of my mind what we went through,” she said.
For some flight attendants, the rule change brought unfettered excitement. Kim, a flight attendant for American Airlines who spoke on the condition that only her first name be used so she could speak candidly, was midflight when an email came through alerting employees to the change. Then the captain made the announcement.
“Our entire crew was ecstatic about it,” she said. “I mean, we were taking pictures. We were so happy.”
Kim, who is based in Dallas, said the mandate was getting harder to enforce leading up to the ruling, as most state and local mandates across the country dropped. She noticed a particular uptick in resistance from passengers for roughly two weeks before the ruling.
But even as it was “exhilarating,” as Kim put it, there was an adjustment period. “The first few days I was flying without a mask, it felt weird; at the same time I was happy and excited about it,” she said. “It felt strange, because it’s like, our face has been covered for two years. But this week has been different, where it’s like, I hardly think about it anymore.”
Randi, a Honolulu-based flight attendant who spoke on the condition that her last name and employer not be included so she could speak freely, was similarly caught off guard at seeing passengers’ full faces. “I kind of forgot,” she said. “I was welcoming passengers on [board] and I was just, like, ‘Wow, I can see faces again.'”
While she was “shocked but a little relieved” by the rule change, she has opted to continue wearing a mask to protect herself and those around her, including colleagues, family and neighbors.
Heather Holding, a flight attendant based in Chicago, also opted to keep her mask on. She said she has been pleasantly surprised by how respectful passengers have been of each other’s choices.
“Hopefully [we’re] moving in the right direction in terms of not policing people and everyone just chilling out,” said Holding, who works for a major carrier and spoke on the condition that her employer not be named so she could speak candidly.
“It’s kind of crazy to think how long it felt like we were bouncers, like the policemen of the masks,” she said.
“To kind of have that large aspect of our job be thrust upon us with no training … and something that was highly politicized was just a wild ride, I think, for everyone’s mental health,” she added.
Lyn Montgomery, a career flight attendant and president of TWU Local 556, the union that represents Southwest Airlines flight attendants, said morale has been very low, and “by and large” members are happy about the rule being dropped. The union previously wrote a letter to the Biden administration calling for an end to the mask mandate for public transportation.
With the future of the requirement uncertain, Montgomery said, “I think the most important thing to take away is that, whatever is determined, please follow the directions of the flight attendants.”
Gifford echoed that, urging customers to not take their frustration out on flight attendants if the rule comes back. “This has become a part of our job, and when you buy a plane ticket, you’re agreeing to do this, and it’s not our fault,” she said.
Aldama said that when new flight attendants complain about the job being tough, more senior employees have sometimes said, “You weren’t here for the recession, you weren’t here for 9/11, you weren’t here for all the mergers and stuff. So, there’s this notion that you have to come in and go through something tough to earn your spot.”
She said enforcing the mask mandate has been her version of that.
“This is one thing that, when you discuss your flight attendant career to your grandkids, you’re going to be like, ‘And then there was 14 months when people were hitting flight attendants, and somebody lost their teeth,'” Aldama said. “This is one of those things that you’re going to bring up for decades to come.”