Saturday, March 20, 2021

Masks and Airlines

Yesterday I read an article in Power Line by John Hinderaker titled Mask Theater In the Senate.  Most of it was about the spat between Rand Paul and Dr. Fauci in a Senate hearing, and I liked John Hinderaker's take.  But he ended by touching on John Kerry's maskless flight on American Airlines.  He states "I don’t join in those who condemn Kerry for hypocrisy. In my opinion, not wearing a mask on an airplane is perhaps the first sensible thing Kerry has done in his last four decades in public life."  Let me tell you why I felt John Hinderaker's take was just plain wrong.

First, I want to assure you my position on masks is middle of the road.  I wrote early on that Fauci was wrong when he said masks do not help.  On the other hand, I think politicians and much of the public took mask wearing too far.  Yesterday, I was hiking in a state park with the wind blowing about 20 miles per hour.  There has not been a mask mandate for outdoors in our state.  But a couple with their child came from the other direction, and put on their masks.  The closest we would come was about 4 feet for maybe 5 seconds.  We were on a jeep trail.  I thought that was ridiculous.

Let's also consider the recent CDC recommendations for schools where they reduced the distance rule from 6 feet to 3 feet (while wearing masks).  I've read that 3 feet and a mask reduces droplet exposure by 80%.  So the old 6 feet requirement would have reduced droplet exposure by 96%.  But there were no statistics on airborne pathogens (that are so small they do not drop to the ground like droplets).

Next, take the situation on an aircraft.  People are crammed in about 18" face to face on each side of a person.  If someone reclines their seat, they may only be 10" in front of you (or behind you).  If an aircraft is flying at 30,000 feet, the external atmosphere does not have enough oxygen to support life for more than a few minutes.  Yet on most flights (other than to a hub), you are at that altitude for 3 hours or more.  Obviously, the plane does not pull in external air in any quantities at that altitude.

Yet the airlines say they have increased circulation and fresh air on their planes to reduce the chance of COVID transmission.  Sure, they could easily have increased the number or power of fans.  And while on take-off or landing or at the terminal, they could increase the amount of fresh air they pull in.  But at flight altitude?  The only way to get more air would be to mix fresh with tanked oxygen.  My strong suspicion is that that is uneconomical due to storage tank size, weight and increased fuel costs.

So during most of a flight, maybe you get some air circulating, but it is most certainly not fresh, pathogen free air.

And I used to fly quite a bit.  Almost always, you heard one or more people on the flight hacking their lungs out.  Way too often, they were only a row or two away.  Every once in a while, I got sick after flights.  I almost never got sick the rest of the year.

In my opinion, planes are still probably one of the most dangerous places to pick up a pathogen.  Too many people, too close, and ineffective air circulation.  Masks can only help.  In fact, I wish they would require masks on planes even when there is not a COVID pandemic raging.

Finally, I can understand John Hinderaker's position on masks in general.  I don't like government mandates, and most places have reasonable spacing between people and decent air circulation.  Masks shouldn't be required.  Those few places where those conditions don't hold, people can opt out of visiting.  But traveling long distances without using numerous travel days requires airline flights.  For those situations, you don't have a viable alternative, and yet the conditions for pathogen transmission are horrendous.  John should have picked a different example.  Masks are good policy on airlines. 

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