Is British Airways reversing course on face mask requirements?
Days after British Airways became the world’s first major airline to scrap face mask requirements, the airline caused confusion amongst passengers after appearing to walk back its relaxed mask rules.
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In the same week that Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow Airport followed suit by loosening their own face mask policies, it would appear pushing the policy change through in time for March 16 has not been smooth sailing for the U.K.'s flag carrier.
TPG U.K's managing editor, Jordan Waller, flew with British Airways from London Heathrow (LHR) to Dublin Airport (DUB) on March 17 and found considerable confusion around face mask rules.
Upon boarding his flight he was informed by flight attendants that masks were required and was promptly provided one. Throughout the flight itself, however, he saw a number of passengers not wearing masks, with the rule not enforced by flight staff.
Related: Ireland ditches most of its COVID-19 rules: Americans welcome just in time for St. Patrick’s Day
The only mention of face masks, aside from boarding, was when the flight approached landing where an announcement was made saying all passengers would need to wear a mask for disembarkation. This echoed a conversation earlier in the day during which Jordan was told by fellow travelers at Heathrow airport that they'd been advised by BA that masks would only need to be put back on when entering airports where national rules made it mandatory.
To add further confusion, Heathrow Airport is still showing instructions that masks are mandatory on their announcement boards despite saying it would be ditching masks by March 16. Airport staff explained to TPG that the signs were incorrect, and travelers were free to go maskless in the airport -- they simply hadn't updated their signs. This is despite having several days since making the announcement that they were ditching mask requirements earlier this week.
British Airways crew members believe the carrier is already backtracking on its universal de-masking policy, according to industry chatter on the web forum FlyerTalk.
FlyerTalk user EJetter wrote: “Masks still required for passengers and crew (on CityFlyer at least, I don’t have visibility of the mainline … The company is looking into some compliance issues so masks are required on all [British Airways] and BA CityFlyer flights for the time being.”
“We’ve been told an issue which they can’t disclose has arisen so masks will remain mandatory on all flights until further notice," an apparent crew member commented. "Great joy for the crew who will now have to police this after a jazzy social media campaign from BA about [the] removal of masks from today."
According to a BA source who reached out to TPG on social media following our initial story, the airline has "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.
Related: Virgin Atlantic is launching a new route to America going head to head with British Airways
BA's official website, at the time of writing, still states that face masks are mandatory, which is a change from several days ago. The site states that passengers are required to wear them "at all times” and even stresses that “one mask lasts four hours so please bring enough for your journey."
It’s been a big old week for the U.K. travel sector, which continues to inch back to normality after the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a raft of airlines and airports now looking to welcome air travelers without the strict requirements of high-grade face masks as standard.
But is it a case of walking before they can run?
Hailed this week by BA COO Jason Mahoney as a “really positive step forward,” BA said it would only require face coverings on board if the destination they’re traveling to requires it, including the U.S., where masks remain mandatory for air travel until at least April.
What is for certain is the new rulings put the onus of COVID-19 safety firmly on passengers who could make a “personal choice and “[respect] each other’s preferences."
Naturally, the news was met with a mixed reaction on social media, with many frequent travelers welcoming the news as a sensible move. Others remain cautious, or even critical of the airline, enquiring about refunds as they search for alternative options on existing bookings.
As yet there's no official word from BA on how much it plans to walk back its new mask policy. We've reached out for comment and will update this story as soon as there is a development.