On Monday, a federal judge struck down the nationwide mask mandate for passengers on airplanes and other forms of travel. Most U.S. airlines immediately announced that they would no longer require masks, except on certain international flights. To understand how some flight attendants—the people who have been tasked with enforcing the mandate on flights and have gotten the brunt of most passengers’ anger—are reacting to the news, Slate spoke with Sharifa Grant, a flight attendant for JetBlue. This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Grant and has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I was actually waiting at the airport for my plane to come in when we all got the email with the news. And some crew members decided, when people got on board, to announce it over the interphone. It was like the passengers were being broken out of jail. The majority of them were ecstatic. People cheered. They were clapping. Some people were laughing. Some people wanted to throw their mask out immediately. Some people whipped it off and waved it around their head. This one lady was waving it around her head like a T-shirt. It was bizarre.
Since the beginning of COVID, the disposition of the customers has been pretty angry. They’d get on the plane upset. And for the first time, it felt like everybody was just very relaxed, which was shocking. Everybody was much calmer, much happier. It was bizarre, because I was like, Wow, this mask really was what was making all of these people mad. It was like people were just directly angry at me every time I went to work. I’ve been doing a lot of flying in and out of Florida these past few days, so I don’t know if that matters, but for the first time, the job has felt like what it was before COVID.
We were all pretty much expecting the announcement. The CDC had extended the mandate until April 18, and that would be the day that airlines would discuss keeping the masks on. But it still felt kind of abrupt, because with the resurgence of the variant going around, we thought that they would play it safe.
We also kind of felt like it was time. Because at this point, people were coming on with the masks half on, and they were super annoyed if you were telling them to pull it back up. Definitely near the end it was worse, because people were just kind of tired of wearing the masks.
But it’s never been good. People were never just compliant. A lot of my co-workers decided to stop enforcing it. They were saying, “Listen, I’m going to say it once, and if they don’t do it, I don’t care.” Because at some point, we get burnt out asking people constantly to do this one little thing.
I’ve only had to kick off three people, which before COVID would have sounded ridiculous, because you weren’t kicking people off willy-nilly. But there were instances where I had people who didn’t want to put their masks up, and we had to take them off the plane. And they went willingly. I got pretty lucky.
At this point, repealing the mandate is making my life easier, because I don’t have to enforce it anymore. It’s fine if people don’t have to wear them anymore. That’s up to them at this point. I’m just kind of burnt out by the whole situation.
The whole experience was incredibly disheartening, being an essential employee and having to deal with people’s emotions and be a bit of a punching bag. But more than anything, I’m just happy that the mask mandate is over. Flying is pretty much back to normal. I’m still wearing my mask; I feel safer that way. I don’t feel like we’re completely out of it, and I would like to keep myself safe and the people that I love safe. I’m almost the only one left.