Masks mandates on planes: Some airlines are scrapping mask rules on flights

The Brits have gone rogue – again. Starting with low-cost carrier Jet2 on March 1, and quickly followed by Tui, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, several UK-based airlines are allowing passengers to fly mask free.

This comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of "Plan B" measures from January 26, 2022, which meant the relaxation of mandatory face-mask wearing indoors and on public transport in England, although Scotland is sticking with its mask mandate.

That makes England one of the first major jurisdictions to drop mask-wearing obligations for flyers, but that's not surprising since England has been at the forefront of moves to relax COVID-19 protocols. Including Passenger Locator Forms and evidence of a negative test for COVID-19, no longer required for incoming travellers as of March 18.

Which airlines require a mask?

Apart from the British carriers, the default requirement for airlines is for masks to be worn at all stages of the flight. That includes Qantas, Lufthansa, KLM, Finnair, Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, the three big Middle East carriers and Turkish Airlines. In the USA, anyone over the age of two years is required by federal law to wear a mask. That same law requires all passengers on flights to or from the USA aged over two years to wear a mask, regardless of which airline they're flying.

Aeroflot took a different tack. Back in 2020, rather than booting passengers who refused to mask up, the airline allocated a special section of their aircraft to the refuseniks, but you're not likely to be breathing their air anytime in the foreseeable future.

Children are exempted from wearing masks on aircraft but the age varies. The US is the toughest, excusing only those under two, while Qantas takes a more liberal approach, exempting passengers under 12 years.

The US mask mandate that applies to airports, aircraft and other forms of public transport was set to expire on March 18, 2022, but that has now been extended to April 18.

Does mask wearing on aircraft work?

In a typical pressurised aircraft cabin, the air is passed through high-efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA) every couple of minutes. After it's sucked in through floor vents, the air passes through the HEPA filters and squirts back into the cabin via the overhead nozzles above your seat. HEPA filters are dense fibre mats that trap even small virus particles. Some airlines claim 99.9 per cent of all such particles are removed when the air is recycled. If so, then why bother with a mask?

According to a 2020 study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the University of Hong Kong and the Centre for Health Protection, Department of Health, Hong Kong, four passengers on the same flight from Boston to Hong Kong were found to have been infected with COVID-19.

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"Their virus genetic sequences are identical, unique, and belong to a clade" (a group of organisms believed to be derived from a common ancestor) "not previously identified in Hong Kong, which strongly suggests that the virus can be transmitted during air travel," observed the study.

More recent research by Shanghai Jiao Tong University compared one flight from London to Hanoi on which passengers were largely mask-free, and which resulted in 12 infections, with another from Singapore to Hangzhou, where passengers wore masks and one who loosened his mask subsequently contracted COVID-19. All the infections on the London-Hanoi flight came from a single passenger. Using computer-generated airflow modelling the study predicted with 84 per cent accuracy which passengers would catch COVID-19 and which would not. According to that analysis, if the passenger who was the source of the infections had worn a mask, only two passengers would have been infected. If all passengers used masks for protection, the number of infections would have dropped to one.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a number of clinical studies of inflight transmission of COVID-19. A 2021 review of 18 such studies published in the Journal of Travel Medicine found "results are consistent with the suggestion that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur in aircrafts (sic) but is a relatively rare event."

Bad behaviour

Being told to wear a mask inflight causes some to do a massive dummy spit, with US travellers being the worst offenders. From a potpourri of bad behaviour, some refusers have wrestled with other passengers, attempted to storm the cockpit, knocked out teeth of cabin crew and been hog-tied by fellow passengers and dragged down the aisle to the rear of the aircraft. And been booted from flights. In January 2022, a first-class passenger on an American Airlines flight from Miami to London declined to wear a mask, causing the pilot to turn the aircraft around and land back at Miami. These are probably the same people who once had a meltdown on the supermarket floor when told they couldn't have Honey Smacks.

In the US at least, the passage of time has not made travellers more tolerant of inflight mask-wearing mandates. On the contrary, they've become even more stroppy. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in the period between February 2021 and March 2022 the Transport Security Administration (TSA) issued more than 2700 warning notices and over 900 penalty fines to maskless passengers. All but 10 of those fines were levied in the period between October 2021 and March 2022, after the TSA doubled fines for non-compliant passengers, at up to $US3000 for repeat offenders.

How to minimise the risk

Longer flights come with greater risk. More inflight meals mean more periods when masks are off, and passengers are more apt to nod off and let their masks slip. For any Australian travelling overseas, a long flight is almost a given, but there are strategies to help keep you safe. Pick a seat away from toilets and galleys, where people tend to linger. Maybe even knock back the inflight meal, or bring your own to consume when everyone else is masked up.

Wearing a mask is a small inconvenience. Like buckling your seatbelt in a car, or covering your mouth when you sneeze, and for exactly the same reasons, wearing a mask keeps you and those around you safe. For anyone who sees mandatory mask wearing as an invasion of their rights, the choice is simple. The message is grow up or stay home.

See also: I was afraid of travelling to Europe, but it was wonderful

See also: Travelling during the pandemic? Here's what you need to pack

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