May 17, 2022

Face masks will not have to be worn in airports or on flights in the EU from May 16th, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Wednesday.

The organisations said they were dropping the recommendation to wear masks in the airport and on a flight, while also noting “a face mask is still one of the best protections against the transmission of Covid-19”.

So, what does this change to regulation mean for those planning to jet off this summer?

What have the European authorities said about dropping the face mask rule?
EASA executive director Patrick Ky has said: “From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport.”

The EASA and ECDC have said the rule change “takes account of the latest developments in the pandemic, in particular the levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity, and the accompanying lifting of restrictions in a growing number of European countries”.

ECDC Director Andrea Ammon added that even though wearing masks would not be mandatory, “it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission”.

Given the rule change, is there a sound medical argument for choosing to wear a mask on a flight?
Earlier this month, Irish Times health analyst Dr Muiris Houston wrote about how a number of unknowns make it difficult to recommend ditching the face mask when travelling on an airplane. He quoted a study by the US Military Transportation Command which stated that the current understanding of the transmission dynamics of coronavirus is not yet sufficient to definitively calculate the level of risk.

There are other unknowns making it difficult to recommend a no-mask policy, Houston said, such as how passenger movement on a plane contributes to transmission risk and the risk associated with flying from an area with high levels of infection. With the addition of being surrounded by people in the airport, Houston, as well as many infectious disease experts, has said he will be wearing a mask on a flight, and a non-valved N95 mask at that.

Are most people in favour of wearing a mask on a flight?
This week, in response to a callout, Irish Times readers responded overwhelmingly in favour of people continuing to wear masks on flights. In fact, no one said they would choose not to wear one. A number of people said they believed it was considerate to others to wear a mask, especially the elderly and the immuno-compromised.

This was underlined by responses from elderly people and those with health conditions who, although some are still too scared to fly, said they would feel more comfortable if everyone wore a mask on an airplane. Elizabeth from Co Antrim said: “I want to enjoy some travel while I am still able. I think all travellers should be aware of other passengers’ worries and respect them by wearing a mask.”

Are all airlines dropping the mandate on masks?
Rules for wearing masks are expected to vary after the mandatory requirement is lifted, with airlines told to encourage passengers to use masks on flights to or from destinations where wearing a mask on public transport is still required, according to the EASA and ECDC.

Is anywhere outside of Europe considering a similar move?
A number of US airlines said they would no longer require masks in April, after a federal judge in Florida ruled that the US administration’s mask mandate on public transport was unlawful.

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