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‘Very unlikely’ mask mandate on planes will come back, United CEO says

A federal judge recently overturned the federal mask mandate on airplanes, though the Department of Justice is appealing this ruling.

The mask mandate for air travel was struck down this week, but could it ever come back? Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, doesn’t think so.

“I think it’s very unlikely that a mask requirement is going to come back anytime in the foreseeable future,” he told Craig Melvin on TODAY Thursday.

Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle overturned the requirement to wear masks on airplanes, trains and other forms of public transportation, calling the federal mask mandate “unlawful.”

Shortly after this ruling, several major U.S. carriers, including United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue, and others, dropped the requirement to wear masks on board.

The Department of Justice is now appealing Mizelle’s ruling, arguing that masks are still necessary for public health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on its website that it “continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings."

However, in Kirby’s view, “this appeal is mostly about jurisdiction," and he said he's confident in his airline's ability to keep customers safe without masks. The Biden Administration has said the goal of the appeal is to preserve the CDC's authority for future public health crises.

“An airplane, particularly because of the airflow on an airplane, is literally the safest place you can be indoors, and be around other people,” Kirby said, “We were on the road, I think, to removing the masks even before the judge’s ruling.”

Kirby also addressed concerns about how the lifting of the airline mask mandate would affect immunocompromised people, as well as children under 5, who can't get vaccinated yet.

“As a father of seven, I have two children under 5 and (am) really confident in having them out, both at airports or taking them to restaurants,” he said.

He also noted that customers or United employees who still wish to wear a mask will be able to do so. He added that United is working with customers reluctant to fly due to being immunocompromised, or other concerns to issue travel credits or refunds.

Bringing back banned passengers

Kirby also addressed United’s recent announcement that it will welcome back some passengers on a case-by-case basis who had previously been banned from flying due to conflicts surrounding mask-wearing on planes.

“Some of them will be banned for life for bad behavior,” he said. “But customers that simply refuse to wear a mask, what we told them is you can’t fly United until the mask mandate is over. If you’re not going wear a mask, you can’t fly. We have talked to them individually, and many of them assure us that now that the mask mandate is off, everything is going be fine. And I trust that the vast majority of them will.”

“Our flight attendants did an amazing job of deescalating,” he added. “Our flight attendants really did a great job. And because of that, we’re comfortable that these people who just didn’t want to wear a mask, now that there’s no mask mandate, we can let them come back.”