Facemasks on flights could be here for years to come, according to experts

Feb 1, 2022

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Facemasks are likely to become a normal part of the travel experience on flights for quite some time. 

Even as COVID-19 infection rates begin to plateau, borders reopen and travel restrictions lift, air experts say facemasks are here for the long haul.

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“Get used to them” is the message from Ryanair’s finance chief Neil Sorahan, who compared facemasks on flights to the liquid restrictions imposed on planes after the 9/11 attacks 20 years ago. 

“Masks will be something that will be with us for a while longer to come,” said Sorahan. “If that is the price we have to pay for the next few months, into summer – it’s a small price to pay.

“It’s a bit like after 9/11, we ended up with our toiletries in plastic bags, maybe we’ll have to live with masks for a while longer.”

A hot stew of international rules will make it “nigh-on impossible” for individual airlines to allow passengers to fly without masks, making them one of the last travel restrictions to go.

Related: How to navigate long-haul like a pro, according to a pilot who does it all the time

“Until there is a harmonised lifting of mask mandates on flights by governments worldwide it is simpler for airlines to keep the rules in place,” a senior aviation source told The Times newspaper. 

According to sources, airlines are waiting for a cross-industry consensus on mask-wearing, and will not break ranks, resolving instead to “act as one”.

A number of medical experts have told The Points Guy that – while their sophisticated air filtration systems make passenger planes one of the most COVID-safe public spaces a person can be – facemasks remain the final line of defence against infection. 

“The primary aim for the mask is to protect the people around you from you, but it is also giving you a layer of protection,” said Dr Paolo Alves, global medical director for MedAire, which provides medical and safety advice to the airline industry. “Nothing is 100%, in medicine or in life, but I would not go into a place where people weren’t wearing masks if I don’t know them. Not because masks offer 100% protection, but because I want to minimise my odds of getting it.”

Related: If you need to wear a face mask on your next flight, these are your choices

Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, said he would wear a surgical mask as a personal rule throughout plane journeys, whether he was told to or not. “I’d wear it through customs at both ends, and in the taxi or train or bus,” he told us. “The only time I’d take it off is when I’m eating. Aside from being vaccinated, masks are the best thing we can do to stay safe.”

British Airways has already confirmed it will continue to make passengers wear face masks on all their flights when the U.K. drops its masking laws next week.

In a statement, the carrier said: “We have no immediate plans to change our mask policy, but keep our policies under review and continue to take advice and guidance from all the appropriate authorities.”

Virgin Atlantic also said that it would continue to review its pandemic health protocols and would “work together across the industry to see when changes can be made”.

The news comes two months after America’s Federal Aviation Authority said it had seen a record rise in unruly behaviour aboard flights, the majority of which were over facemasks. Earlier this month a flight bound for London had to return to the U.S. following disruption caused by a passenger who refused to abide by the current rules for facemasks onboard the flight.

Its latest figures for 2022, released last week, showed that of 151 reports of unruly passengers, 92 were related to mask-wearing.

Related: London-bound flight returns to Miami after First Class passenger refuses to wear mask

Here’s what the leading airlines are saying about masks:

British Airways

British Airways requires passengers aged 12 and over to wear a face mask at all times in the airport and onboard the flight. “As a guide, one mask lasts four hours so please bring enough for your journey,” it says.

It adds on its website: “When you’re on board, you’re allowed to remove your face mask for a reasonable time to enable you to eat or drink. When you’re not consuming food or drink, your face mask must be placed back on and must cover your nose and mouth at all times.”

easyJet

All passengers aged 6 and above must wear a mask. “Face masks must be worn at the airport, at the gate when boarding the aircraft, and throughout the flight,” the carrier says on its website. “Passengers not wearing a  mask will not be able to board the aircraft.”

It adds: “Scarves, face visors or masks with valves are not permitted.”

Jet2

Vaccinated or not, everyone over the age of 6 must wear a facemask.

A statement on the company website adds: “If you’re unable to wear a mask, you must let us know in advance to be able to travel. If you fail to wear a face mask without our agreement, you’ll not be allowed to board your flight or transfer.”

Ryanair

“You must wear a face mask/covering in the airport and onboard your flight. Some countries such as Italy, require this to be a surgical face mask. If you are travelling to/from/within Austria or Germany, it must be a FFP2 face mask.”

TUI

A statement on its website reads: “Everyone aged 12 and over needs to wear a face mask on our flights, including while sleeping unless you’re exempt due to a medical condition. You’ll need to wear a mask even if you’ve had your two vaccinations. Your face mask must cover your nose, mouth and chin — you can wear a face shield, but you’ll need to wear a face mask, too.”

It also asks travellers to bring spares for long-haul flights and change them every four hours.

Virgin Atlantic

“Virgin Atlantic requires passengers aged 12 and over to wear face masks or face coverings at all times onboard flights and throughout the airport.” You can, it says, remove them to eat.

Wizz Air

The budget airline says: “It is now compulsory to wear face masks onboard our aircraft for both passengers and crew. For flights over four hours we recommend you bring more face masks.”

Featured image by Stefan Cristian Cioata/Getty.

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