International flights from Australia: The COVID-19 rules for each airline

International travel is going be a whole different game, starting with your flight. Regardless of where you're going and which airline you're aboard, you're going to be wearing a mask.

That's particularly burdensome for us. Unless your destination is New Zealand or somewhere else in the South Pacific you're probably facing a flight of at least six hours, and much more to North America or Europe. Those el-cheapo but effective surgical masks slip and they're just not going to cut it on a long flight, so you might want to invest in something more comfortable.

Children are excused from mask protocols but the age of exclusion varies. In the case of the US airlines that applies only to children aged under two. That could lead to an interesting conversation with a truculent two-year-old. US airlines also have tough rules around eating and drinking. Masks may be removed between bites but chewing and swallowing, mask back on bud. That's a federal requirement so don't mess with the cabin crew. North American airlines are also picky about vented masks, the kind with the little breather hole since the valve does not screen out virus particles. Japan Airlines, on the other hand, advises against talking loudly during a flight, since that will project an infected speaker's viruses.

Food and beverage service has been pared back. In economy class there's not too much difference since the offerings were pretty basic to begin with, but some airlines are dumping cold, pre-packaged meals-in-a-box on business-class passengers and eliminating some of the frills such as snacks and booze on demand.

All airlines stress that the High Efficiency Particulate Filters that scrub the aircraft's cabin air can capture more than 99 per cent of airborne microbes and even particles as small as a virus. That cabin air is refreshed every 2-3 minutes and therefore any virus doesn't get a chance to hang around in the cabin for long.

Airlines have also instituted deep-clean procedures between flights, going an extra mile to sanitise cabins. Qatar Airways is using a Honeywell UV Cabin System, a futuristic device with arms that wheels down the aisles with extendable arms radiating virus-snuffing UV light.

Most airlines have required customer-facing staff to be fully vaccinated.

Apart from the universal requirement to mask up, here's what to expect on board your next international flight. Every airline grants mask-wearing exemptions to anyone who can prove a medical condition that makes it impossible to wear a mask, but seek permission from your airline in advance, the requirements vary.

Qantas

All passengers on the airline's international flights will be required to be fully vaccinated with a TGA-approved or recognised vaccine, with some exemptions for medical reasons and children. Those under 12 years are exempt from the mask-wearing requirement, although that age limit may be lowered on flights to and from the US. Flight crew will ask you to limit movement around the cabin and food and beverage offerings are temporarily reduced. A complimentary Fly Well pack consisting of a face mask and sanitising wipes is available either prior to boarding or onboard. Frontline employees including cabin crew, pilots and airport workers must be fully vaccinated by November 15, 2021 all other employees by March 31, 2022.

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Air New Zealand

Lisa Te Tai and her grand daughter Manaia. She is visiting her children in Auckland and taking her grandson to visit. First “bubble” flight to New Zealand. JQ201 taking off at 6:15am will be the first non quarantined flight from Australia to New Zealand since the borders closed across both countries because of the COVID-19 outbreak Photo Nick Moir 19 April 2021

Photo: Nick Moir

From February 1, 2022, all passengers 18 and older on international flights must be fully vaccinated. Food and beverage services are paused on domestic flights within New Zealand but water is available on request. Pilots, cabin crew, and other customer-facing employees of must be vaccinated by November 14.

Emirates

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Check for re-use. Emirates crew in PPE. Emirates will be the world's first airline to roll out the IATA Travel Pass on all routes. 

Children under six are exempt from the mask-wearing requirement. Depending on regulations at your destination you may also be required to wear gloves or other PPE. Emirates was the first airline to operate a flight with crew fully vaccinated, in February 2021. All Emirates staff who are not vaccinated must pay for a COVID-19 test before flying.

Qatar Airways

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Qatar Airways flight attendant cabin crew in PPE personal protective equipment

The mask-wearing requirement does not apply to children under six, except on flights to and from the US. All passengers get a protective kit with a face mask, gloves and hand sanitiser gel. Hand sanitiser is available in the galley and the airline recommends passengers wash their hands regularly throughout their journey. After every flight linen and blankets are washed, dried, and pressed at temperatures up to 100 degrees centigrade and economy class pillow covers are binned. All Qatar Airways' cabin crew have been vaccinated.

Etihad Airways

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Etihad Wellness Ambassadors part of the hygiene measures on board flights to prevent the spread of COVID-19

On August 1, 2020, as part of its Wellness program, Etihad began requiring all passengers to show a negative PCR test taken before boarding, the only airline with this requirement. Etihad was also the first airline to implement mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for all flight and cabin crew. Wellness Kits available on board include a face mask, hand gel and sanitising wipes. In February 2021, Etihad became the world's first airline to have all its operating pilots and cabin crew vaccinated.

United Airlines

All flyers aged two and older are required to wear a face mask that fully covers their nose and mouth with no vents or openings. Passengers may remove masks when eating or drinking but federal law requires they put mask back on between bites and sips. Passengers must bring and use their own face mask but United's customer service agents will provide one if required. All United employees are now vaccinated, a small number of staff who refused to comply have been terminated.

American Airlines

Exemptions from the airline's mask-wearing requirement on medical grounds require documentation from a licensed health care provider, including proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three calendar days of departure or proof of recovery from COVID-19. All American Airlines employees in the US must be fully vaccinated by November 24 or face termination.

Delta Air Lines

Prolonged periods of mask removal are not permitted for eating or drinking – masks must be worn between bites and sips. Permitted masks include disposable surgical masks, cloth masks with tightly woven fabric and respirator masks (N95 or KN95) provided they don't have a valve. As with other US airlines, children under the age of two are exempt and passengers who cannot wear a mask for reasons related to their disability must complete Delta's 'Clearance-to-Fly' process at the airport. All the airlines new hires must be vaccinated, existing staff who remain unvaccinated will pay a health insurance surcharge of $200 per month.

Air Canada

Except for flights to and from the US, all passengers over six years must wear an approved face covering fitted snugly over the nose, mouth and chin. Anyone with a medical certificate confirming their condition makes it impossible to wear a mask during travel must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before departure. The airline has a mandatory vaccination policy for all employees.

Singapore Airlines

Supplied PR image for Traveller. Singapore Airlines COVID-19 safety measures and PPE

Passengers six years and older must wear face masks, provided in the complimentary Singapore Airlines Care Kit. The airline advises passengers replace their mask when it becomes damp. Singapore Airlines no longer distributes printed menus on board but you can preview your in-flight food and beverages up to eight days before your flight. All the airlines' Singapore-based frontline staff were vaccinated as of September 1.

Japan Airlines

JAL's FlySafe Hygiene Measures ask that passengers refrain from drinking large amounts of alcohol and conversing with accompanying passengers in a loud voice. Also, they should store their own carry-ons rather than relying on cabin crew and flush the toilet only after the lid is down. Passengers are asked to maintain social distancing when boarding and leaving the aircraft, which could be interesting given the pop-up passengers who rise en masse as soon as the seatbelt light is switched off after landing. In mid-June JAL began a campaign to vaccinate 36,000 group employees, with the initial focus on those working on international routes.

See also: PCR: What you need to know about compulsory COVID test for travellers

See also: Leaving Australia will be cheap and easy next month, unlike coming back

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