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We boarded one of the first British Airways ‘maskless’ flights: It didn’t go as planned

March 18, 2022
9 min read
British Airways Airbus A380-800 aircraft with registration G-XLEK landing at London Heathrow International Airport
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TPG flew from London Heathrow (LHR) to Dublin Airport (DUB) on March 17 on what we’d hoped would be one of our first maskless flights since before the onset of the pandemic.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be.

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Earlier this week, Heathrow Airport, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic boldly declared that passengers would no longer be required to wear face masks from March 16. The move would mean that travelers navigating the terminals of the U.K.’s busiest airport could be barefaced.

So, too, could anyone traveling on flights by the aforementioned carriers provided their destination didn’t require face masks.

Related: Is British Airways reversing course on face mask requirements?

The announcement was met with both cheers and derision across the travel and social media landscape. Some welcomed the return to so-called "normal" and others were hesitant, feeling that the move was coming too early and masks should still be required.

For me, the news was quietly welcomed. While I do, and happily will, wear face masks, I also find them uncomfortable for various reasons.

Firstly, I wear glasses. This seems minor if you have 20/20 vision but other people who wear glasses will understand. When you wear a mask you spend a lot of time trying to keep your spectacles from fogging up. This isn’t life-threatening, but when trying to read departure boards or signs it is a hindrance.

And reading subtitled films on flights is an absolute nightmare.

Additionally, I’m secretly claustrophobic. I rarely mention this because it’s kind of embarrassing, but I’m the type of person who can find themselves breaking out into sweats (oh, so sweaty!) and struggling to breathe on public transport. Before the pandemic, I found wearing headphones on crowded public transport, elevators or airplanes could bring about a high level of panic.

Face masks (due to having my visual senses impeded by fog) make this worse.

Related: Travel is getting easier: Here are some of the countries that have eased COVID-19 protocols

Also, I have bad ears and can have trouble hearing people when they speak. Seeing someone's lips as they talk can help me avoid awkwardly asking people to repeat themselves. At least when they speak clearly or don’t have some lip engulfing modern-hipster beard, anyway.

These issues haven’t made me stubborn enough to boycott face masks — I appreciate they’ve been have been a necessary measure — but I was a bit pleased about their demise.

Because Ireland had recently scrapped its travel rules, and face masks were no longer mandatory on public transport, according to the Citizens Information website, I was looking forward to flying mask-free.

Masked and unmasked travelers at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5, March 17 (Photo by Jordan Waller / The Points Guy UK)

But confusion began to set in as soon as I arrived at Heathrow.

Upon entering the airport I wasn’t surprised to see that around 60% of the travelers were wearing masks. My assumption, much like on the London Underground, was that it was a personal choice, or people were unaware masks were no longer mandatory.

Either way (provided people were respectful of each other's choices) it was fine.

But then I noticed an announcement board clearly stating that face masks were indeed a mandatory requirement. Around this time, reports also began circulating that British Airways had backtracked on its face mask announcements earlier in the week.

Heathrow announcement board displaying wrong mask rules. (Photo by Jordan Waller / The Points Guy UK)

Were these reports just spurious internet rumors?

To clear things up I asked a Heathrow staff member if face masks were required in the airport. Their response? “No, they’re now optional, so you don’t need to wear them, they just haven’t updated the boards yet.”

Given the amount of coverage that Heathrow’s announcement had received earlier in the week this was a surprise, they’d had several days to ensure the necessary updates and messaging could be amended. But, it wasn’t the end of the world and I fully appreciate that these things happen.

At least the staff had the information they needed and were able to clarify the rules. Though I do suspect if they’d updated their announcement boards it might have avoided some of the angry glares I saw between masked passengers and those who they perceived to be flagrantly disregarding the rules.

Related: British Airways to launch new ‘daylight’ route from Newark to London

But what of British Airways and its apparent U-turn?

Through social media we were informed by a BA source that the airline had “internally communicated that all routes still require face masks on board ... even domestic flights," adding that it seemed the earlier announcement on the face mask mandate was potentially premature.

Reaching out to an official BA spokesperson we were unable to get a clear line on whether this was accurate, although it did seem there may have been some logistical challenges with communicating the mask-lift. TPG hasn't yet received an updated response.

Fellow travelers who had flown with the British flag carrier that day told us they’d been advised by BA masks would simply need to be put back on when entering airports where national rules made it mandatory. And thus, for us, the flight itself would presumably still be mask free.

While waiting for our flight there was no signage to suggest masks would be needed once we were on board. As a result, I decided to put this to the test and board without a mask.

As I stepped onto the Airbus A320 taking us to Dublin I was duly informed by flight attendants that masks were mandatory on the flight and promptly handed one. I mentioned Ireland’s dropping of travel rules, but the flight attendant informed me Ireland was apparently one of the destinations insisting on face masks being worn on flights.

I didn’t push the matter, though it was at odds with the information I'd read online. I donned my mask (without gripe, I might add) and headed to my seat. But I did want to double-check this information. From my Google search, I found the same information. According to the website, it is "no longer mandatory to wear a face mask on public transport, in taxis, shops, schools and other indoor public areas.”

My understanding of this was that — despite what I had been told by the flight attendant — we were being asked to wear face masks, not due to Ireland’s rules, but because BA preferred us to. Which is fine, but why make an announcement earlier in the week saying the airline would no longer be enforcing masks?

Further research revealed that Dublin Airport did have face mask rules in place. The airport's website stated: “It is now a legal requirement that all passengers wear a face mask or appropriate face-covering throughout their full airport journey.”

My understanding of this vague line is that this rule would only apply when you’re in the airport itself, not on the inbound flight where mask enforcement could be decided by the carrier.

Semantics aside, I accept it’s possible Dublin Airport had insisted that passengers remained masked during flights. But I’d also contend it’s also likely that vague and confusing rules have simply been miscommunicated by airports, airlines and government bodies.

While I opted to respect the rules and keep my mask on during the flight, an incredibly high number of passengers did not. I’d have expected flight attendants to enforce the ruling as they ambled around the cabins, as they had when we boarded; and as I have seen on other flights during the pandemic. They didn’t do this. In fact, they suddenly seemed happy for people to treat masks as optional just as their mask mandate announcement had suggested.

Compounding this further, as we approached landing we were told by the pilot that we should all put on our face masks for disembarkation. In line with my earlier thoughts, masks would be required in Dublin airport, but not on the flight. This was also in line with my earlier conversation with other travelers at Heathrow and their understanding of the rules.

Passengers took note and donned their masks in readiness. Once in the airport, we were again confronted by a mixed crowd of mask wearers and barefaced travelers. None of the latter, as far as I could tell, were pushed to put on their face-covering by staff.

Wearing a mask for me isn’t a travel deal breaker. I’m simply not stubborn enough to fight the matter, despite finding them uncomfortable.

I recognize the need for rules and the importance of masks in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in certain environments. However, rules should be enforced and should also be clear and delivered with clarity.

In this instance, British Airways simply sowed confusion and appeared to be just as baffled by its own regulations as I and other passengers were.

Bottom Line

I’m sure British Airways is taking steps to phase out mandatory face masks. But in this instance, it seems they’ve failed to communicate this properly internally, or externally to airports. As such, staff appears to deliver mixed messages on the specific rules.

I have no problem wearing a face mask if it’s required, but I do need these requirements to be made clear, and for their enforcement and messaging to be consistent.

And finally, Heathrow really needs to update its announcement boards.

Featured image by British Airways Airbus A380-800 aircraft with registration G-XLEK landing at London Heathrow International Airport LHR EGLL in England, United Kingdom. The aircraft has 4x RR Trent 900 engines. BA or BAW is the flag carrier of UK and member of Oneworld aviation alliance. BA operates in its fleet 12 of the double decker Airbus A380 airplane. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases