No surprise that this week’s court decision to overturn the CDC’s mandate on mask wearing in public transit ignited the predictable video of cheering passengers on airliners. I was a little surprised that the cheering wasn’t more enthusiastic, but then like everything else in modern America, sentiments are hopelessly divided on this issue.
I last wrote about this four months ago, at which time I thought the mask mandate should have been dropped around March 1, which is what I’d have done if it were up to me. At that point, prevalence was in decline, hospitalizations were down and COVID-19 deaths were also receding. Since then, there’s been a slight upward trend but not so much to burden the healthcare system, which to me was always the worry and the tell you could count on.
The airline business is uniquely vulnerable to a dangerous virus and if you don’t believe that, you weren’t paying in attention in April 2020, by which time load factors had dropped off a cliff. Some people claim, erroneously, that this was due to government restrictions. It was in fact people voting with their lungs. They perceived the risk as not being worth the reward of a trip, even an important one. In retrospect, the risk was probably inflated, but two years ago, we had no vaccines, minimal therapies and some hospitals were overwhelmed with cases and deaths. Nor should any of us forget the role airplanes played in vectoring this disease to every corner of the globe. COVID-19 did not come from China, or Italy or the U.K. on a ship or a bus. It came on a 777.
Airlines still haven’t recovered from the 2020 downturn; an airline trip is chaotic and uncertain due to mismatched capacity and demand. Hungry as they are for revenue, the airlines shouldn’t forget this can happen again, either with a resurgent SARS-CoV-2 or another virus that might be even worse. Which is why I’m not cheering the court case that lifted the mask mandate. A federal judge in Florida ruled that the CDC exceeded its authority in ordering the mandate, centering her logic on a narrow, and in my view, distorted, definition of “sanitation.” She basically reasoned that CDC had broad authority to sanitize a mess after it happened, but no authority to prevent it in the first place. And by the way, sanitation applies to things, not people. The plaintiff’s original suit argued that Congress abdicated its authority in giving CDC such power in the first place. I would have them read through the Code of Federal Regulations for a lesson not based in fantasy.
The Justice Department is appealing this ruling, as well it should, not to immediately reinstate the mandate, but to reestablish the ability to order one if it’s needed. And it very well could be. Long forgotten is the first SARS-CoV in 2003 that had a mortality rate as high as 15 percent and closer to 50 percent for people over 60. What do you think that would do to the airline business if it got loose again? I don’t know about you, but I’d want CDC to have reasonable authority to mandate mitigations without going through the rulemaking the judge faulted it for skipping and without waiting for an act of Congress while people are dying in the streets.
Throughout the pandemic, I periodically pushed reset to assure myself I wasn’t falling into group think on the efficacy of masks. Subsequent reporting convinces me that what was true then is true now: Masks are a weak to moderate mitigation supported by admittedly mixed data, but with a generally positive directionality. I found them slightly inconvenient, but not intrusive and certainly not tyranny. (Look at the photos of Mariupol for an example of that.)
I can fault CDC for overreach in the extent of the mask requirement. Its activation is, to a degree, arbitrary. There’s no hard number of case rates or deaths that says at this point, masks are needed and at this point, they aren’t. It requires data interpretation and risk assessment. But CDC shouldn’t consider itself the sole arbiter of relative risk. Citizens have that right, too, and at some point, there’s a collective sense of being willing to live with some risk. I think we’re at the point now and CDC should have sensed it and reacted sooner. Failing to do so damaged its credibility and makes it all the more difficult to ask the public to go along next time.
And there is certain to be a next time.
JAL 123 Revisited in Detail
Do you remember JAL 123? That was the 747 that crashed in Japan in August 1985, killing 520 people. Only four people survived. I remember it because I’ve written about it, but I either forgot or never knew many of the details. But Miles O’Brien dug them up in a new podcast series he has just published. Here’s a link to it. This is more than 90 minutes total and it’s riveting.
JAL 123 was a 747SR, a special model designed for the short domestic commuter flights both JAL and ANA were flying in Japan. It was on 250-mile flight from Tokyo to Osaka when it crashed in rugged terrain shortly after takeoff. I had forgotten it crashed at dusk and first responders didn’t arrive until the next morning, forcing survivors to spend a horrific night amidst the wreckage and the dead. I also didn’t know this crash has a permanent place in the Japanese consciousness and is memorialized every year in a way that only the Japanese can. JAL even erected a museum that contains hundreds of passenger artifacts and notes to next of kin.
The cause of the crash was a badly performed repair by Boeing on the aft pressure bulkhead, which had been damaged in a hard landing. When it failed, it took all of the airplane’s hydraulic systems with it and, another thing I forgot, it blew the entire vertical fin off the airplane, leaving just a stub. It was a repeat of what had been learned a decade before and what engineers came to know as the size effect. Widebody aircraft contained so much pressurized air that a breach in the pressure vessel could cause catastrophic damage. That’s what took down a DC-10 in Paris in 1974 when a cargo door blew off and nearly did another DC-10 near Windsor, Ontario two years before.
Some lessons are hard in the learning.