By Natalie B Compton
When the federal transportation mask mandate was shot down on Monday, I had friends who said they were no longer comfortable flying if face coverings were optional. Others were overjoyed the mask rule was gone.
I fell somewhere in the middle, feeling privileged to be considered low-risk for severe coronavirus but also unsure about disregarding guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The ruling came just before I was scheduled to take an international trip. Even with coronavirus restrictions dropping in many destinations, I had assumed the mask mandate would stick around until May 3, if not longer.
Now I was about to travel to Europe like it was 2019. Because I'm vaccinated, boosted and recently recovered from a coronavirus case, the situation didn't feel as nerve-racking as it could have. But I still debated: Was this a good or bad change?
With that conflicting stance, I headed to Baltimore International Airport to catch a flight on the new Icelandic budget carrier, Play Airlines, to London by way of Reykjavik, Iceland – my first trip post-mask-mandate.
A barefaced new world
The milestones started the moment I walked out of my apartment into my Lyft ride to the airport. Even though a text alert from the ride-hailing company reminded me to wear a face covering, despite dropping their requirement this week, my driver was mask-free. I followed suit, sort of.
For the first 10 minutes of the ride, I kept taking my mask off and putting it back on before ultimately deciding to go barefaced.
Since it was a Wednesday afternoon past the spring break rush, the airport was much quieter than when I flew out of Reagan Airport the week before (a Sunday night and still spring break season). There were a few idling travellers and a lone masked janitorial worker walking around the drop-off zone outside. Inside felt like a similar scene: quiet.
An airport experience like it's 2019
In the short line for security, most travellers didn't have masks. I had mine around my arm instinctively, as if someone was about to demand I wear it. No one did.
After two years of pulling down my face covering to confirm my identity, I just walked up to the masked TSA agent, handed over my passport, had my face scanned by a biometric machine and kept on down the line.
When I asked the cashier at Starbucks if he liked seeing people's faces again, he laughed and said "Uhhhhmmm… it's fine."
I posted up at an empty gate – another pandemic instinct – to keep some distance and also get a better people-watching spot. Travellers rushed by in a kaleidoscope of mask combinations.
Sometimes the parents were wearing them and the kids were not, or one kid was wearing one and the rest of the family was maskless. My best estimate was that about a quarter of people were masking.
Conflicting feelings in the sky
At my gate, airport employees were wearing face coverings, but on board, Play flight attendants were not. I had expected this, as Iceland had dropped its coronavirus restrictions and Play had announced at the end of March that most routes did not require masks.
I masked by default as I have on dozens of flights before. My brain toggled between keeping my mask on and thinking I was being overly cautious. As I inched down the plane aisle, there were plenty of people in both camps; I wouldn't be an outlier either way.
"You're fine, I don't care," I overheard. In a row near me, two travellers were discussing their mask preferences as they settled into their seats. Both decided on going maskless for the flight before launching into more small talk. It reminded me of smoking etiquette, like someone asking if a person minds if they light up.
The plane to Reykjavik seemed to be chatty in general, with people swopping travel plans ("There's a whale museum; you can walk to that") and life stories ("So why did you become a personal trainer?").
Not everyone was relaxed and conversational. To my left, a traveller sat with her masked face nearly glued to the window as we waited to take off, sitting perfectly upright, arms clenched together in a grip. Because she was sitting down by the time I got to our row, I followed her lead and wore my mask, too.
Because I was on an uncharacteristically empty flight, once the "fasten seat belt" sign turned off, I grabbed my carry-on bag and found an empty row. Alone as one could be in economy, I de-masked and ate some Cheez-Its. It felt exciting – and a little illicit – like finally being old enough to drink at a bar.
There were reasons to feel relieved and worried.
On a recent flight from Miami to DC, my masked face got so swampy while we waited on the tarmac for take-off that I felt like I was suffocating. Even as someone who doesn't mind the mandate, I couldn't wait to rip mine off.
But I could also count on two hands the number of people I knew with the coronavirus at that very minute. I questioned my choice to skip the mask when I went to the airplane lavatory after a double-masked family with young children – even if it's not required, what do we owe our at-risk neighbours?
Going with the maskless flow
It didn't feel like we're in a pandemic at Reykjavik-Keflavik Airport in Iceland, where I had a short layover on the way to London.
Even fewer people were wearing face coverings here compared to Baltimore, plus there were zero coronavirus restrictions.
We didn't have to mask or show test results and vaccination records, as I did connecting through the same airport in July 2021. I took a deep, maskless inhale to smell the fresh-baked pastries from a caf–, then felt less great about that decision when the guy next to me sneezed.
My next flight was full, and for the first time in two years, there wasn't a face covering in sight, including on the flight crew. By now, I had embraced being mask-free.
For a 7am. flight, the plane was buzzing with energy. I watched people flirt, joke, scowl and laugh. It was almost overwhelming to observe all the emoting.
I was barely hanging on by a thread after my red-eye flight, and I fell asleep pretty deeply for being crammed in a tiny budget airline seat. I would wake up from my fitful naps with my jaw cranked open, tongue exposed to the elements.
Once upon a time, I thought it would look strange to wear a mask to cover my open-mouth sleeping style. Now I'll probably do it as a courtesy to the people around me and for future coronavirus concerns.
On the tram to passport control in the London Stansted Airport, a woman who had also departed from Baltimore told me she had worried about flying without a mask. She said she took the risk over the discomfort of masking on a long-haul flight. We commiserated, both hoping for the best, yet concerned.