Update: Which flights do I need to wear a face mask on? An airline by airline guide
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This article has been updated.
The mask is slipping from the travel industry… quite literally, as airlines race to free the face on flights.
Back in March, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic followed Jet2 and Tui in making masks an option rather than an obligation on some routes, while London Heathrow (LHR), along with other major airports, announced they no longer expected travellers to cover their noses and mouths in their terminals.
Then came EasyJet, before KLM and Norwegian joined the domino run of airlines allowing passengers to fly barefaced.
Over in America, the CEOs of ten U.S. airlines wrote an impassioned open letter to President Biden, begging him to allow them to stop enforcing mask-wearing on flights for the sakes of both passengers and crew.
Biden’s administration held out, but they soon get their wish when a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government’s mask mandate on airlines was unlawful, leading to a wave of domestic carriers doing away with mask laws and giving passengers a choice.
Understandably, it’s still a touchy subject for many travellers as the world slowly emerges from a brutal pandemic. In fact, perhaps no US-based airline has summed up the move to optional mask use quite like an Alaska Airlines spokesperson, who said of their own move towards optional mask-wearing:
“Face masks have been like boarding passes for nearly two years — you couldn’t fly without one. But, as of today, masks are optional in airports and onboard aircraft, effective immediately.
“While we are glad this means many of us to get to see your smiling faces, we understand some might have mixed feelings. Please remember to be kind to one another and that wearing a mask while travelling is still an option.”
But which other airlines are loosening their mask rules, and which are holding fast?
Here’s an airline by airline guide…
Compulsory (surgical masks only)
Air France are one of the stricter airlines when it comes to masks. The rules are simple: no cloth masks are allowed, only surgical masks. And they are mandatory “from the moment you arrive at the airport and throughout your Air France flight.”
“It is mandatory to wear a surgical mask or an FFP1, FFP2 or FFP3 type mask, without an exhaust valve, on board.”
While the US dropped their mask mandate in mid-April, their Canadian cousins across the border have not dropped their own requirements quite yet. As a result its carrier Air Canada continues to implement a mandatory mask rule.
“You must have a mask or face covering that covers your mouth and nose during your travel through Canadian airports and during your flight,” says the Canadian government’s website. “Air operators must notify each passenger, and receive confirmation, that they have a face covering as early as possible during their journey.”
Compulsory (except for direct flights between Manchester and the US)
Aer Lingus recently asked the Irish government for a rethink about mid-air mask rules, but for now you’ll still need a medical certificate to go mask free.
Unless, that is, you fly direct flights between Manchester and the US, in which case masks are optional.
Cloth masks are allowed on the majority of Aer Lingus routes but if you are travelling to or from Austria and Italy, you are required to wear an FFP2 type face mask.
“We recommend that these are worn from when you enter your departure airport, to when you leave your destination airport,” the airline adds.
When a Florida lawmaker recently declared that the U.S. government’s mask mandate on airlines was unlawful, American Airlines were one of many domestic operators who immediately ditched the ruling. Now its passengers have a choice as to whether they want to mask up or not.
“Face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights.
“Please note face masks may still be required based on local ordinances, or when traveling to/from certain international locations based on country requirements.”
The move back to normality will have been particularly welcomed by many staff who the airline previously revealed had been the brunt of passenger frustration towards mandatory mask rules. “This is not a function they are trained to perform and subjects them to daily challenges by frustrated customers,” the carrier said at the time. “This in turn takes a toll on their own well-being.”
“Personal choice” on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply
While initially there seemed to be mixed messaging as to whether BA passengers would drop mandatory face mask rulings in March, the airlines has since adopted a clearer message, saying: “On flights to destinations where a face covering is not mandated, British Airways will allow travelers to make a personal choice regarding whether or not to wear a mask.”
Basically, if you’re flying to or from a destination that requires face masks to be worn, you will be required to wear a face mask.
The travel guidance, therefore, is the same as it has been throughout the pandemic — check local travel restrictions and entry requirements before you depart, and adhere to them.
There was sweet relief for Delta as they dropped mandatory mask use onboard and around terminals earlier this month:
“Effective immediately, masks are optional for all airport employees, crew members and customers inside U.S. airports and onboard aircraft,” read a statement from Delta in the wake of the ruling that declared mandatory mid-air mask-wearing was unlawful.
“We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as COVID-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus. Thank you for your support in complying with the federal mask mandate and keeping each other, and our customers, safe during the pandemic.”
Not all passengers have been on board with the changes, mind, with some even taking to social media to criticise a perceived celebration among staff at the return of mask-free air travel. But for thousands of fliers, the development has been seen as a step in the right direction.
Obviously, mask rulings on international flights do differ, but passengers heading to and from the U.K will have the choice of whether to wear one or not.
Optional on flights to countries where masks are not mandatory in public
In March, for the first time in 2020, EasyJet passengers travelling to countries where it is not a legal requirement to wear face coverings in public places were able to fly barefaced on EasyJet.
Customers or crew who wish to continue wearing a mask will “have their personal choice respected”, said the carrier.
But, as mentioned, there are plenty of European destinations where you’ve got mask up, including all flights to, from and within Italy, Austria and Germany, where all passengers aged 6 and over are required to wear a FFP2 when they fly.
Also, pay attention when flying into or out of Scottish airports, as the country still requires face masks to be worn in airports and on flights.
Another airline keeping its cards close to its chest (or face) when it comes to masks is Emirates.
According to its website, passengers must “wear a cloth or medical mask throughout Dubai International airport, during boarding, throughout your flight, and as you leave the aircraft”.
This applies to everybody over the age of six, bar those with medical exemptions.
There might be some leeway onboard the airline’s Airbus A380, however, where business and first class passengers are invited to order drinks from its iconic standing bar.
But here’s what the company says about that: “You need to keep your mask on throughout the flight too when you’re not eating or drinking, as well as any other PPE requirements for your destination.”
“We choose smiles you can’t see” says Etihad’s website in one of air travel’s friendliest (or perhaps creepiest) mask-policy public statements.
“You must wear a face mask on board and our crew wear PPE at all times,” says the airline, which also boasts of being the world’s first carrier to force all its pilots and cabin crew to get vaccinated.
As of Monday 25 April, passengers and crew on the Finnish carrier will no longer be required to wear a facemask on board unless it is required by the authorities of the country the plane is bound for.
Anyone hoping to keep wearing a mask when travelling can continue to do so.
“The aircraft is regarded as a low-risk environment for coronavirus transmission, thanks to the effective air conditioning and other factors reducing the risk of transmission,” said Kimmo Ketola, Finnair’s Medical Director.
Optional on flights (except to and from Scotland)
On 2 March, Jet2 became the first U.K. airline to scrap the requirement to wear masks on its planes.
The budget carrier relaxed its rules, telling passengers they can now fly barefaced for the duration of its flights.
“It’s no longer a legal requirement to wear a face mask at our airports or onboard our planes,” say the operator. “However, as per U.K. Government guidance, we recommend that you continue to wear a face mask in these spaces, and you might need to wear one when you get to your overseas destination.
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The guidance does not, however, apply to flights to and from Scotland, where mask-wearing is still compulsory in airports. “This is the case even if you’re fully vaccinated,” the statement added.
On 23 March, KLM announced it will no longer enforce the wearing of masks on its flights, despite the Dutch government’s refusal to lift mask-wearing rules on public transport.
The Dutch carrier said it was becoming more difficult to justify the enforcement of masks to passengers when so many countries (including the Netherlands) are abandoning mask rules in public places on the ground. The airline added that, as a result, it had seen an increase in “unruly” behaviour on flights.
Optional (but check local requirements of where you’re going)
Norwegian Air stopped requiring passengers to wear masks on 4 April.
“From today (4 April), people flying on the Scandinavian carrier can choose whether to cover their faces or not, although the European airline does advise that all passengers should check local requirements and guidance at their destination ahead of travelling — including any stops or connecting flights,” the airline said, noting that “it is the responsibility of the passenger to comply with local regulations and restrictions.”
“ersonal choice” on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply
In March, Virgin Atlantic echoed British Airways in telling passengers to use discretion when deciding whether to wear a mask on certain flights. “As we learn to live with Covid and with the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask on board, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply,” Chief Customer and Operating Officer Corneel Koster told customers.
According to Qantas’ website, masks are still compulsory on all flights.
“It is requirement by Federal, State and Territory governments to wear masks at airports and inflight,” say the airline. “Your face mask needs to cover your mouth and nose, fit securely and must be worn unless you’re under 12 years of age or have a medical exemption. A scarf or bandana is not considered a face mask.
“When travelling within Australia, you’ll need to wear your mask as soon as you enter the airport, and also inflight.”
Compulsory (for now)
While masks are still a cast-iron requirement on all Ryanair flights (even reminding passengers to wear a FFP2 mask if headed to Italy, Austria or Germany), industry insiders believe it to be a matter of time before the Irish carrier drops the rule.
CEO Michael O’Leary even revealed he would like to see holidaymakers fly barefaced by April or May this year, adding: “We are consulting with cabin crew as well at the moment. We want to know how they feel. The key issue for us is that people are comfortable to go back onboard our aircraft.”
Another American airliner which dropped its mandatory mask rulings in April, Southwest have put the onus on passengers as to how warm they’d like their face to be: “Southwest employees and customers will be able to choose whether they would like to wear a mask, and we encourage individuals to make the best decision to support their personal wellbeing.”
Compulsory (surgical masks only)
Swissair has also banned the use of cloth facemasks, saying a “mouth-nose cover” applies to all passengers and staff, vaccinated or not.
“On all flights, facemasks of the FFP2, FFP3, KN95 or N95 standard without a valve and not made of fabric, surgical masks as well as community masks are obligatory when boarding, onboard, and when leaving the aircraft.”
It does, however, say that allowances may be made in cases of differences to “national regulations or requirements of a destination country”.
Optional on U.K. flights (except to and from Scotland where it’s compulsory)
On 11 March, TUI became the second carrier to throw caution to the breeze of change and scrap the mask on certain routes – the move was extended to include flights to and from Wales on 29 March.
Ahead of the recent Easter break, the company said: “Face masks will no longer be a legal requirement on TUI Airways flights to/from England, Northern Ireland and Wales, however in line with UK government and EU Charter guidance, we strongly recommend that you still wear a mask throughout your flight. Under current guidance, it is still mandatory for customers aged 12 and above travelling on TUI Airways to/from Scotland to wear a mask throughout their flight unless medically exempt.
“It’s important to note that you may still be required to wear a mask when leaving the aircraft and once inside the airport at your arrival destination.”
United by name, united by nature – the U.S. giant was one of the 10 airlines that wrote a letter to the White House, begging President Joe Biden to free the face on flights.
In the end it didn’t matter what Biden nor his counsel thought of the mask rulings, because they’ve been deemed unlawful. It didn’t take long for United Airlines to kick its new, more liberal mask policy into effect:
“Effective immediately, masks are no longer required at United on domestic flights, select international flights (dependent upon the arrival country’s mask requirements) or at U.S. airports,” read a statement earlier this month.
“While this means that our employees are no longer required to wear a mask – and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public – they will be able to wear masks if they choose to do so, as the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] continues to strongly recommend wearing a mask on public transit.”
The Hungarian low-cost carrier says it is compulsory to wear face masks on board all its aircraft for both passengers and crew. For flights over 4 hours the carrier recommends you bring more face masks.
“Other protective gear is recommended and appreciated,” the airline adds.
Featured image by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Additional reporting: Joe Ellison
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