As global travel begins to open up post-lockdown, the controversy over face masks has moved from city streets to the skies, as airlines scramble to give passengers a clearer picture. Some consistency is quickly emerging with mandatory mask-wearing being part of a bigger effort by all carriers to keep travelers safe – and planes in the air – as the second surge of the pandemic kicks off in many parts of the globe.

What are the airlines saying?

United and Alaska airlines, for example, now ask fliers as part of a general COVID-related pre-clearance health check that they agree to wear a mask as part of the conditions of buying a ticket. Aer Lingus, part of the AIG group that includes British Airways, has told all passengers (with some exceptions for children and those with some medical conditions) on its flights until August 31 that they must wear face coverings from the time they board the aircraft until they are inside the terminal they are traveling to. 

Iberia insists all passengers above the age of six must wear face masks and goes further saying “Passengers must change their masks with the frequency indicated by the manufacturer. Bags will be provided for the storage or disposal of used masks.” Ryanair also says passengers will have to wear masks onboard, but that they will be able to lower them to eat and drink. Reports from travelers on July 1 – the first day when flights opened up – state that there was enthusiastic compliance on a Ryanair flight from Dublin to the south of France. Not only was everyone on board wearing a mask, but they didn’t take them off at all during the two-hour flight on the two-thirds-full plane. That’s impressive given that mask wearing in public spaces in Ireland is so low – though it is compulsory on public transport.

It’s not clear though what would happen if a passenger refused to wear a mask – other than repeated requests from the air crew. Stories are emerging in US media about passengers not wearing masks and airline staff being reluctant to confront them in case of mid-air escalation.

Senior woman and adult son wearing face masks as they roll their luggage through an airport
Airlines can make mask-wearing a condition of service © Getty Images / iStockphoto

The laws and guidelines

Countries can impose laws around such issues. For example, in Morocco failing to comply with orders to wear face masks in public places risks a prison sentence of up to three months and a fine of 1300 dirhams. Airlines can make mask-wearing a condition of service.

So could it be that air travelers are going to be paragons of face-mask etiquette? The industry’s umbrella bodies certainly hope so and the messaging is consistent. Airlines for America has told its members it should ask passengers to “bring a face covering and wear it at the airport, on the jet bridge and onboard the aircraft.”

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published a lengthy guide that stresses “respiratory etiquette” and face mask wearing. That extends to airports too.

A couple wearing face masks push their luggage on a trolley in front of the International Arrivals sign at London Heathrow Airport
Passengers may need to complete "Health Tracking Forms" © Justin Tallis / AFP / Getty Images

The objections

Travelers though don’t leave their prejudices at airport security and there are some whose objections to face masks range from civil liberty issues right through to simply not believing the science. And for the latter point – misplaced as it is – you might have some sympathy.

There has been a great deal of confused messaging coming from the global science community at the start of the pandemic. Early commentary that people would wear masks ineffectively – that they would, for instance, touch them all the time, creating greater risk of transmission – set the tone for mask deniers; followed by academic disagreements about droplet trajectory. And let’s not forget at the start of the pandemic there was a global shortage of PPE, so just a few months ago someone wearing a mask in public ran the risk of being accused of taking a piece of lifesaving equipment from a front-line worker.

Given all this though it’s worth fliers remembers exactly where they are. Airlines are private companies and can –within certain legal frameworks – set their own rules; think of those restaurants in holiday resorts with “no shirt, no service” signs at the door, and you get the picture. And those terms and conditions in the case of COVID-19 health and safety restrictions are writ large on their signage and online. As more carriers take to the sky again – and particularly when transatlantic travel ratchets up – Iberia will not be alone in insisting that on flights abroad "passengers must also complete a 'Health Tracking Form' and a 'Health Questionnaire'”. After supplying such detailed information – each question a reminder that the deadly pandemic shows no sign of ending – wearing a face mask seems a small thing to ask.

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