Face coverings have become a staple of air travel over the past couple years. For some passengers, they’ve proven divisive — mask non-compliance has been blamed for the majority of US disruptive inflight incidents so far in 2022.
Now they’re starting to vanish from the skies altogether. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are set to make mask-wearing optional for passengers and crew on certain flights from March 16.
The UK-based airlines announced the change in statement issued by London’s Heathrow Airport, which is also removing its mask requirement this week.
Heathrow, BA and Virgin Atlantic say they’re following the government guidance for England and Northern Ireland, where the legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport and indoor spaces has been removed. Masks remain compulsory on public transport in Scotland and Wales.
All four nations in the UK have also agreed to eradicate the remaining international travel restrictions, allowing all travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the UK without testing from March 18 onwards.
Smaller UK airlines Jet2 and Tui have also dropped face masks for select flights.
Going mask-free will only be permitted on certain Virgin Atlantic and British Airways flights.
That’s because each destination has different rules and laws regarding masks and aviation.
“This policy will be introduced gradually, beginning with our Caribbean services from Heathrow and Manchester airports,” reads a statement from Corneel Koster, Virgin’s chief customer and operating officer. Virgin has published full details on the mask-free flights on its website.
Meanwhile, a statement from British Airways’ chief operating officer Jason Mahoney said BA was “working through” each destinations’ local restrictions and legal requirements.
BA’s official line is that “customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re traveling to requires it.”
However, that doesn’t automatically mean face masks can be left at home when traveling to the UK.
Some destinations currently require masks for inward and outward bound flights — such as the US, where the mask mandate is set to be in place until at least April 18.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stipulates that mask wearing is required“traveling into, within, or out of the United States.”
Virgin Atlantic says destinations Delhi, Islamabad, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lahore, Lagos, Mumbai, Shanghai and Tel Aviv have similar rules, meaning travelers must continue to mask up on board even if they’re traveling from these places to the UK.
As the face covering rule will now be determined by the specific laws surrounding face coverings in specific destinations, there’s potential for confusion among travelers and airline staff.
In response to a passenger asking about mask-wearing on flights to and from Portugal, a BA representative on Twitter said: “I imagine you wouldn’t need to wear a mask on a flight to the UK, due to UK law around masks. However, this hasn’t been communicated yet.”