121pilot, our resident airline captain on Live and Let’s Fly, returns today to discuss pilots wearing masks inside the cockpit.
In light of a controversial recent decision by American Airlines to dock pay from a captain who forced his first officer to wear a mask, I want to address the issue of pilots wearing masks in the cockpit.
Why Pilots Wearing Masks In the Cockpit Are A Whole Different
When COVID-19 first became a threat, most airlines prohibited crews from wearing masks. Given the CDC guidance at the time, this was not without reason. But even when mask usage started to become more common and ultimately permitted for flight attendants, it remained prohibited for cockpit crews by the FAA.
Then two welcome changes occurred. First and foremost, in recognition of the latest science and the possible germ pool that a cockpit oxygen mask represented, the requirement to don and wear the oxygen mask when one pilot left the cockpit above 25,000 feet was lifted. Given that this was probably one of the most violated rules in all of commercial aviation, this move was greeted with universal enthusiasm. Additionally, the FAA issued a ruling that was adopted by most if not all airlines in the US, that allowed but did not require pilots to wear masks in the cockpit.
Three Reasons Why Masks Don’t Belong In Cockpits
There are a number of issues that come with wearing a mask in the cockpit and those reasons are why most crew members don’t wear one in flight. First, in an explosive decompression getting your facial mask off and the oxygen mask on adds seconds to a procedure that is already time critical. Second is the issue of rebreathing CO2 for hours on end while at altitude in a safety critical position. Third, for those who wear glasses, masks represent a challenge that frequently leads to those glasses becoming fogged. This can be a challenge even for those with perfect vision during daytime flights when you need to wear sunglasses. Even with the built-in shades, it can get very bright in the cockpit at altitude. Consequently, wearing a mask while operating the aircraft compromises safety. With what we know about how air flows on aircraft, the risks posed by wearing a mask greatly outweigh the risks that come from not wearing one inside the flight deck.
One Great Exception Toward A Greater Goal
The above does come with a very large caveat, however, and leads me to how I brief all my first officers (FO) on the subject. When I meet an FO for the first time, I tell them that I’m not planning on wearing my mask and that they do not need to wear theirs if they do not want to. I am very clear, though, that if they would be more comfortable with both of us wearing a mask, then I will happily wear mine.
But wait. You’re thinking, he’s just said he believes masks represent a safety threat so why would he volunteer to put one on? Because there is a far more important issue that has led to a lot more accidents and incidents at play. Flying an airliner isn’t a one-person job. It’s very much a team effort and doing it well and safely requires two crew members who are working together as a team. It’s absolutely critical that a FOs feel that they have the right to challenge their captain’s decision making. Consequently, it’s critical that as a captain I create a cockpit environment where my FO feels comfortable and able to challenge me. But should FOs tell me they not comfortable flying without my wearing a mask and I refuse to wear one what does that say to them? It’s likely going to put them in the frame of mind where in which they feel I’m not interested in their opinion or concerns.
So again, it’s a balance of risks. The number of depressurization events over the years has been very small and the other risks I mention can be mitigated. But a breakdown in the cockpit team has led to far more accidents over the years. Indeed, one of the most important safety advances in the airline world has been moving from the position where the captain is God and not to be questioned to the principles of Cockpit Resource Management that we operate under today.
I’ve yet to have a FO ask me to wear my mask while flying. But I will continue to make clear to them until we are on the other side of this, that if they would be happier with my doing so all they have to do is ask.
“Given that this was probably one of the most violated rules in all of commercial aviation, this move was greeted with universal enthusiasm.”
Which is why i think all pilots need to looe their jobs. Because of course wearing a hat with F*ck is a bigger threat to aviation security. Not
Masks do not cause “rebreathing CO2 for hours on end” Please change this, you a doing a disservice to the general public, and amplifying anti-maskers message.
yeah where does such a ridiculous belief even come from? Embarrassing that any sane person, much less an airline pilot, would think that. One would think that pilots get some training in the physiology of breathing, oxygen use, partial pressure of gases etc. If anything, lack of oxygen at higher altitudes triggers hyperventilation and _loss_ of too much CO2 in the exhaled air, causing respiratory alkalosis — the basis of the altitude sickness. I am not sure and not saying that rebreathing CO2 would be beneficial in the cockpit (aren’t the cabins pressurized to some near-normal values?), but not only do the masks not cause retention of CO2, it would not necessarily be bad for the pilots if they did.
How do you think surgeons who wear glasses cope with fogging, and there are a lot more of us say there are probably a lot more of us, than pilots (and those with glasses.. simple, you wear an anti-fogging mask that contains a thin strip of foam at the bridge of the nose. The arrogance that this pilot shows, thinking he is in a safety critical job rebreathing CO2 for hours. So the surgeon concentrating 100% of the time for maybe 3-4 hours or longer (there are no autopilots in operating rooms, can safely rebreath CO2. Sorry, by what a load of rubbish.
This line needs to be taken out. You can wear an oximeter and verify that wearing a mask doesn’t impact oxygen intake.
I did. It does reduce oxygen concentration noticeably after 2 or 3h flight at around 6800” cabin altitude.
Actually… your o2 saturation lowers on a flight without even wearing a mask . Have you done a baseline test? We tested it before Covid even started… about 2 years ago.
Agreed with all of this and will add the complexity/challenge of interphone/radio microphone communications. Wait. Before you mock me, it can already be a challenge at times to communicate clearly with the other pilot; weird feedback, different headsets, lowest bidder radios, mumbling controllers etc. Trying to speak on the radio/intercom through a mask? Forget it. And to the comment below about CO2 breathing, the pressurized aircraft is already at a cabin altitude of 6 or 7000 feet. Hypoxia and disorientation is already a threat that we try to mitigate with health, rest and hydration. Even a little more CO2 may have an impact at altitude.
The Captain misses the largest issue.
Communication is compromised when wearing a mask. Within the cockpit, via radio to ATC, intercom to flight attendants, and via PA to passengers.
Accurate communication in aviation is critical and masks unacceptably compromise it.
He can defend himself, but I don’t think he missed it. I just think speaking through a surgical mask is probably not an issue in terms of ATC communication.
I don’t feel that wearing a mask compromises my ability to communicate in my airplane. Other aircraft with different (and perhaps louder) cockpit environments may prove to be different. Remember we are talking about a paper/cloth mask not the O2 mask which absolutely makes communication a challenge.
I am an FO and I contracted Covid from a Capt who felt like visiting bars in the midst of a pandemic was a good idea. I had to be quarantined away from my kids over Father’s Day (the first I’d had at home in a while, and I couldn’t even hug my kids) because of that guys decision. I used to use all of the reasons expressed here as reasons not to wear my mask in the cockpit. But experiencing Covid firsthand and realizing that caring for people is more important than any politic, I actually tried flying with a mask on. While uncomfortable for about three flights, I no longer notice it. I have no issues communicating. I have no issues with CO2. The pilots who state these issues have likely never tried to wear a mask for any length of time in the cockpit, or are politically aligned against them.
I wear sunglasses with my mask, and find that the gasper airflow does a great job of defogging my mask.
Finally, I find that most captains who are opposed to any concept of mask wearing are usually opposed for political reasons. Recently, I flew with a Captain who disregarded my expressed lack of comfort with his decision to allow jumpseaters to go maskless. I felt totally disregarded, voiceless, and unimportant. And his reason was purely political. I spoke nothing more than was required, and wouldn’t even look at him for the rest of our time. Clearly he didn’t get it. Thanks for posting.
Thanks for your perspective. It’s sad that Captains are treating you as an accessory rather than a valued part of a team.
Obviously if we flew together you’d tell me you’d be more comfortable with my wearing a mask and that would be the end of it. Mine and any jumpseaters mask would be on for the duration.
Interesting point about the jumpseat. The blocked middle seat has forced me on to the flight deck for my commute far more often than Before Virus. I always keep my mask on even if the working pilots invite me to remove it.
And I confess: I have NOT tried it for any significant length of time/a whole leg/etc. Though our company issues fairly thick cloth masks, as opposed to the thin ones others here mention, I’ll take a stab at it.
OG you are of course mostly correct, but not all the way. Wearing a face covering increases the amount of CO2 in each breath and decreases the users blood oxygen content. Both of those effects are fairly insignificant but still present. If a runner was to run a distance masked and unmasked in exactly the same conditions you would see a performance penalty. In most conditions in the cockpit that performance penalty is probably insignificant as well, however as those performance penalties add up bad things can happen. So the Captains claim that breathing CO2 is correct as is the performance penalty that the crew takes and that would, however small, add some risk and decrease safety margins. The Captain is not claiming any direct risk to himself by wearing the Mask for long periods of time.
I would also like to add that wearing a mask in the cockpit can make communication between the pilots more difficult and that is also an increased safety risk. I do endorse the Captains position that all of those risks pale in comparison to a break down in good, solid crew teamwork.
Wearing a mask does not increase your CO2 levels, and does not decrease your oxygen levels.
The performance penalties you mention with a runner are not due to some effects of masks causing increased CO2 or decreased O2 content by themselves. It is probably due to the absolute volume of air (and oxygen) the runner is requiring when running, and a mask might serve as a physical barrier to rapid delivery of that volume. It is the same reason at some point runners will start breathing through the mouth (and not the nose) — you cannot deliver enough oxygen thru the nose alone fast enough, because the diameter and curvature of nasal passages put a limit on airflow, and this limit is exceeded with the fast metabolic demands of the working muscle. (And this is also why you will have some anaerobic metabolism — energy production without oxygen, because the working muscles require so much of it and it cannot be delivered fast enough). But the metabolic demands of a pilot sitting in a chair and not physically exercising do not come anywhere close to those of a person exercising, and physiologically a pilot is never at a point where the mask is limiting their oxygen delivery below demand.
1. In an explosive decompression you don’t have to remove your mask just place the oxygen over it. This is exactly what is already done post op in PACUs everyday.
2. Masks do not cause co2 rebreathing. Do you think brain surgeons have been operating for decades with co2 retention?
3. For decades eye protection has been essentially required in the OR to prevent disease transmission from body fluid splashes, even for people that do not need glasses. N95 masks definitely seem to increase fogging, but normal masks don’t tend to have the same issue…
You don’t like to wear a mask fine…. don’t use half backed “scientific arguments” to justify not wearing one because of your “special environment.”
We have communicated just fine for decades with masks in the or too. Imagine trying to talk with orthopedic surgeons in masks and enclosed headgear to prevent injections during joint replacements?
1. No I cannot simply place my quick Don O2 mask over the cloth mask I would have on as it won’t seal properly. If we depressurize and I’m wearing a mask it must come off first.
2. Let’s just assume I’m wrong about the CO2 that’s entirely possible. I don’t have a scientific study one way or the other only my personal experience. Experience that has shown me that when I make my usual stand up (at the front of the cabin) welcome aboard PA wearing my mask I can very much feel the difference it creates.
3. I wear a mask and I wear glasses. Fogging is a real issue for me and others I know. Not always but it does happen. Bear in mind that the cockpit isn’t an operating room and that 99% of us are not wearing PPE that has been designed for the job.
Finally while I didn’t argue communication I will repeat that a cockpit isn’t an operating room. Some airline cockpits can be very noisy places where even on a good day communication can be a challenge.
We don’t need to assume you are wrong about the CO2. There are studies that show you are wrong, you just decided to ignore them. Here is one such study:
Let’s assume what you wrote in the comment is true — then say that in the article. Don’t say conclusively in the article that masks impact oxygen intake. Say that in your opinion, you think masks impact oxygen intake but that you haven’t done any scientific analysis.
I do have to say an operating room is a pretty quiet place, as compared to a cockpit…An extremely technical environment as well..We both do work that has other’s safety on our minds and in our hands… An ICU area / bedside which is the environment where I do my work is also labor/ technology intensive….We are all masked, yet we still communicate well..Often things are happening so fast, such as when we have to give trauma patients blood replacement on massive transfusion protocol, while at the same time working to reduce brain swelling in said patient..In such situations, I have not noticed communication issues or poorly enunciated words due to mask usage..So I have to refute that the medical masks which are widely used in the public these days impair communication..
Yeah medevac pilot here. I wear a surgical mask every flight and a full freaking filtered respirator on covid positive/ suspected flights. All the above is bs. You can wear a mask fine in the cockpit. Surgical masks do not hamper atc communication or cause co2 to build up. Even with my respirator on I can communicate to atc (i sound a little muffled but thats it)
Please see my reply above. The entire post is not BS.
Please delete the line about rebreathing CO2–that is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked (not only by leading healthcare organizations like the Mayo Clinic, but also in studies specific to aviation that have looked at the effects of masks on pilots at altitude).
You are lending voice to a belief rooted in science denialism leveraged by anti-maskers to avoid doing their part to keep their communities safe. When we’re talking about things as critical as aviation safety, facts matter. Science matters. Masks do not cause re-breathing of CO2; it easily passes through any surgical mask, even at altitude.
Rabbmd At altitude an O2 mask has to create a pressure seal for pressure breathing. A mask not only degrades the seal it prevents it. We can’t even have facial hair because of this. High altitude physiology dictates that with the decreased pressure, oxygen transfer in the lungs cannot take place due to the reduced pressure…….in other words no pressure, no oxygen exchange in the lungs. After all we should all know the mixture of oxygen at altitude does not change. Its still 21% O2, 78%N and 1 percent inert gases like Ar etc. The only thing that prevents us from breathing is the lack of pressure to promote blood/gas exchange. Simply putting on the O2 mask over a surgical mask is an industry and high altitude physiology ignorant stance.
I just tested the full face O2 mask in my jet and it seals fine over a mask.
Regarding comms…. I put the mic under my mask and talk on the intercom . Works like a charm . But otherwise yes, communication would be difficult over the noise on the flight deck .
That’s nice, let’s edit something that a captain has written because we don’t like the content.
People still believe in a sky fairy, which also has been debunked, should we correct all publications that make such reference?
No, its not about liking or not liking the content, its about facts, and science. Should text books be published saying the Earth is flat and taught to children?
And yes, if you are posting garbage, yes it should be corrected.
I don’t care one way or the other if the captain wears a mask, but dont push BS to justify wearing or not wearing one.
Are you saying that we should not know about phlogiston just because it’s been disproven?
Your argument sounds a bit ‘book burning’ to me.
No, I am saying dont post BS as facts, when it is easily proven or disprove by the scientific method. Do you believe the earth is flat? Should flat earthism be taught in books?
It is a proven fact that a mask does not cause rebreathing of CO2 and does not hinder the inhalation of oxygen.
If you do believe otherwise, please point to scientific studies that back up your claims.
As for your phlogiston example, no, the theory was actually helpful for the scientific record. My question still remains valid, do you believe the earth to be flat, and do you want it taught to your children as such?
Rabbmd At altitude an O2 mask has to create a pressure seal for pressure breathing. A mask not only degrades the seal it prevents it. We can’t even have facial hair because of this. High altitude physiology dictates that with the decreased pressure, oxygen transfer in the lungs cannot take place due to the reduced pressure…….in other words no pressure, no oxygen exchange in the lungs. After all we should all know the mixture of oxygen at altitude does not change. Its still 21% O2, 78%N and 1 percent inert gases like Ar etc. Same mixture of gases only the molecules per volume changes. The only thing that prevents us from breathing is the lack of pressure to promote blood/gas exchange. Simply putting on the O2 mask over a surgical mask is an industry and high altitude physiologically ignorant stance. What works in your OR at sea level won’t work at 41000 feet
This refers to his first point (it could take additional time to put a pressurized oxygen mask on in the event of depressurization and thus carries a risk). But it has nothing to do with the supposed retention of CO2, which simply does not happen with a surgical mask, at altitude or otherwise. At altitude, for the same reasons that you describe there is lack of oxygen (due to reduced atmospheric pressure), there is also lack (not excess) of CO2 (and all other minor gases).
Oh, and my 121 airline now allows facial hair.
This whole article sounds like “by implication” from its always sunny in Philadelphia. Watch it on youtube.
Masks are the new religion. Woe unto them that deny the power of the mask in every situation all day every day.
I even wear one in the shower just in case.
I have to say this is complete BS. I agree with two pilots in a closed cockpit agreeing to a shared compromise of not wearing masks within and thus accepting their own risk/reward, But to try and justify this as you say is completely absurd. Surgeons work for hours in them and are just fine. This just gives more fuel for anti-maskers to say….’See!”
Masks work, but if both of you choose to not use them in a private area…fine. That’s on both of you. But don’t try and justify with these rationalizations that get anti-maskers all riled up with glee. Please. This post should be nothing more than, “Masks work, but sometimes we weigh risk reward of comfort in the cockpit and decide not to wear them as a team in an enclosed and sealed environment.”
Someone tell this pilot that there is CO2 in the air he breathes without a mask
I’m also a 121 airline captain and some of what he says is correct. I hate it though when the entire argument gets thrown out because of one disprovable line item. The CO2 thing was wrong, that’s been proven. But truthfully there is an issue with communication, I’ve tried it. In a larger jet where the two pilots don’t wear masks it’s tough to hear each other clearly. In a smaller louder jet like an RJ, 717, 73, etc you’ll have to wear a headset where the mic has trouble picking you up through a facemask.
And no you can’t just put on the O2 mask over the facemask. This isn’t a standard hospital grade O2 mask. We use pressure demand masks that force pressurized air into your lungs to help maintain not just saturation but pressure. Not to mention it’s required by the FAA to remove any facemask before trying to don the O2 mask. It does add time. The Time of useful consciousness at F400 for a perfectly healthy in shape person is about 7-10 seconds. The extra second or two it takes to remove a mask could be an issue. I doubt it, but I don’t want to find out with a hundred people in the back.
It’s also an uncomfortable distraction in a job where you really don’t want to be distracted. And yes, surgeons wear them for hours at a time, but they’ve also been doing it their entire career. It’s been like 6 months since pilots have started wearing them. Im ok with it, but I haven’t been doing this for 35 years like some of these guys.
Props to him for being one of the few captains one heard willing to wear a mask to make the FO comfortable. I’ll do it too upon request. CRM is critical.
He’s dead wrong on co2 but makes a few other valid points worth looking at.
121pilot makes a good point about CRM that is lost in some of the subsequent responses. It’s about trust on the flight deck and the ability to speak up.
Read the crash reports on BA548 (G-ARPI) at Staines and KL4805/PA1736 at Tenerife – both had significant CRM issues, especially the attitudes and status of the captains. Tenerife had added radio comms issues with weather/duty time as a further distraction stress factor.
For oxygen issues, read Helios 522 crash report and BA5390 incident report to start to realise how insidious oxygen deprivation can be and how sudden decompression can be, both on the flight deck.
Question of all commenting – how many times have you been in a decompression chamber and carried out hypoxia training? It’s fun and smelly but has very serious lessons that make pilots who have done the training alert to the seriousness and speed of hypoxia. I’ve decompressed at least 5 times at different heights up to FL450. We had a standard test of starting at 100 subtract 7 then carry on – few of us got beyond the first 3 or 4 subtractions beforealling or making errors at which point the doctor in the chamber repatriated us with our masks. Recovery was quick yet we were unaware of our incompetent performance. Lessons, I’ve never forgotten.
I think it is unrealistic to compare the flight deck to an operating room. An operating room is static, aircraft can be subject to turbulence or other challenges such as handling problems such as 737 MAX or the QF32 engine failure and significant consequences. The last thing I would want is to have to do is to remove a paper/fabric mask.
Another question – how many air traffic controllers responding? How often have you struggled to hear clearly and understand a pilot? An ATC control room can be a busy and noisy place so making communication with a pilot in trouble doubly difficult. Controllers sometimes have to cope with background noise that can distort pilot comms and that is before we add in the vagaries of radio comms, an example of which occurred in Tenerife. Equally, pilots can experience comms issues with ATC and other aircraft.
On CO2 rebreathing, whilst the O2 content might remain relatively constant, the driver is the partial pressure of O2. Cabin altitude is probably around 8,000ft to 10,000ft (2,500m to 3,000m). There is an interesting article at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1114067/ which briefly touches on cabin altitude in paragraph 2.
Lastly, I was concerned about the cleanliness and risks of emergency O2 masks – are there any solutions that could be a game changer without affecting system integrity?
In sum, CRM is crucial. Understanding hypoxia, speed of onset, and effects is crucial. The sum is flight safety and we should not compromise that with semantics that don’t impact on the core issues.
Has anyone vetted the author to be who he says? I’d be more inclined to take his anecdotal “evidence” seriously if he weren’t hiding behind a pseudonym.