Flying isn’t back to normal. It’s worse.


TURBULENCE — Over the weekend, I flew with my two toddlers for the first time since last summer. On that Fourth of July weekend in 2020, in what turned out to still be the early days of the pandemic, there was no federal mask mandate in airports, though most airlines had their own mask requirements. Even though I flew on a holiday weekend, my flight last year turned out to be smooth and eerily pleasant.

This Memorial Day weekend, our experience was totally different. My two toddlers and I squeezed into a crowded Delta plane. They nearly spilled orange juice on the passenger sitting next to us. Staff were brusque in their interactions — pre-Covid, flight attendants always managed to help me board the plane, sometimes offering to hold a baby while I settled into our seats. This year, no one helped us board — airline staff were more concerned with making sure my older son and I had our masks on correctly.

We’re firmly in the next era of pandemic flying, as my trip revealed. Passenger volumes are quickly approaching pre-pandemic levels. Flights are packed. No more empty middle seats. As the summer travel season starts, millions of newly vaxxed Americans are traveling to see family and friends or just escape more than a year of quarantining. Nearly 2 million people flew on Friday, matching passenger volumes from early March 2020, but still down about 600,000 passengers compared to Memorial Day weekend 2019.

But the virus threat isn’t over for unvaccinated travelers. And airlines are trying to bridge two contradictory messages. They want to assure passengers that planes are safe, but also to continue to be on high alert.

This limbo state has created a noxious travel atmosphere. The threat to flight attendants has gotten the most attention: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg urged passengers Sunday to respect flight crews after a sharp rise in assaults, mostly related to attempts to enforce mask mandates. Southwest said that it wouldn’t resume alcohol service after a passenger traveling from Sacramento to San Diego assaulted a flight attendant and knocked out two of her teeth. American Airlines is also delaying a return to drinking in the main cabin after the incident.

Punching a flight attendant is unforgivable, and less violent outbursts from rude passengers don’t need to be tolerated, either. But even compliant people are frustrated and confused by the counterproductive overabundance of caution in the skies right now. Airline Covid rules, like outdoor mask mandates, are not always rooted in the realities of virus transmission. They’re still handing out sanitizing wipes when you get on the plane. A nice touch, perhaps, but wiping down your armrest and tray table won’t stop you from getting Covid. And if masks are so important, why are we allowed to take them off to eat? A friend I met in Atlanta this weekend for a walk said that on his flight from San Francisco, Delta asked passengers to re-mask in between bites and sips.

Traveling with children was never fun. But the pandemic has made it even more challenging. Ali Rizvi, a journalist who has done freelance work for POLITICO, told Nightly that a Southwest crew member refused to let his family board a flight in early May to Houston from Washington D.C. because their recently turned 2-year-old couldn’t keep his mask on properly. Rizvi and his wife are vaccinated and were traveling to meet family for Eid celebrations after a long separation. They had their masks on, but struggled to get their toddler to wear a mask.

“We’ve been shocked and reeling from the ordeal,” Rizvi said in an email. “The airline displayed such a lack of empathy and understanding over what parents go through to even get the courage to plan a trip with a toddler.”

It’s also yet another example of pandemic guidelines followed to an illogical extreme. Vaxxed, masked parents struggling to get a 2-year-old to wear a mask isn’t the same as an adult who blatantly refuses to wear a mask for political reasons. But airline staff don’t differentiate. The rule also ignored the realities of virus transmission — toddlers just aren’t super spreaders. Rizvi said that, while they were struggling, Southwest staff peppered them with comments like “the pandemic is real.” Since the trip, his toddler has refused to wear a mask at all, he said.

Southwest told Nightly that the airline crew was just trying to adhere to federal law. “We worked with the family to gain compliance prior to their flight’s departure but ultimately, we were not successful,” wrote Southwest spokesperson Brandy King in an email about Rizvi’s situation.

She also pointed out that the federal mask mandate has been extended through Sept. 13, 2021.

Welcome to POLITICO Nightly. Reach out with news, tips and ideas for us at [email protected], or on Twitter at @renurayasam.

— DeSantis signs bill banning transgender women and girls from sports: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law today a policy banning transgender athletes from playing girls and women’s sports that opponents have condemned as deeply discriminatory against transgender athletes and students. Florida’s new law establishes that women’s sports from middle school through college, including intramurals and club teams, are limited to participants based on the sex listed on a student’s birth certificate.

— State to gather diplomats’ health details in response to Havana syndrome: The State Department is rolling out a voluntary new program to gather diplomats’ baseline health information before they head to overseas posts, according to a State Department cable reviewed by POLITICO. It’s part of the department’s response to a wave of mysterious injuries that have harmed scores of U.S. officials in recent years — known as “Havana syndrome.”

— Moderna seeks full FDA vaccine approval: Moderna has asked the FDA for full approval of its coronavirus vaccine in people 18 and older. The company is the second vaccine maker to seek full approval from U.S. regulators, which would allow it to market the shot directly to consumers. Full approval also makes it easier for schools, employers and the military to require inoculation against Covid-19.

— White House: Ransomware attack on major meat processing company ‘likely’ from Russia: A ransomware attack hitting the world’s largest meat processing company, JBS, was from a “criminal organization likely based in Russia,” the company told the White House. “The White House is engaging directly with the Russian government on this matter and delivering the message that responsible states do not harbor ransomware criminals,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said today.

— Biden freezes oil leases in Alaska refuge pending new environmental review: The suspension of the leases follows Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order that identified “alleged legal deficiencies” in the original leasing program and put in place a temporary moratorium on any oil- and gas-related activities in the refuge. The executive order also left open the possibility that the department would undertake a new environmental review to address potential legal flaws in the program.

CONTINENTAL ARMY? It’s time for the EU to become a global military power — and for the U.S. to stop thwarting Europe’s ambitions on defense. That’s according to a new report by the Center for American Progress, the Washington think tank with close ties to the Biden administration.

The report, obtained by POLITICO ahead of its release Wednesday, urges Biden to encourage the EU to develop hard-power military capabilities and calls on him to abandon decades of opposition to EU defense integration by previous U.S. leaders, under the guise of preventing wasteful duplication with…



Read More:Flying isn’t back to normal. It’s worse.