Health experts attack this airline’s unique policy for first and business class passengers

Feb 12, 2021

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Whether it’s in the street, at the gym, or while you’re flying, wearing a mask has become part of everyday life for most of us.

The arrival of COVID-19 has changed the way we travel. While the number one priority of airlines is the safety of its passengers and crew, COVID-19 presented airlines with a whole new set of safety-related challenges to deal with. From mandatory mask-wearing and blocking middle-seats to reduced in-flight service, new safety measures have become standard in most cases.

However, one airline, Cathay Pacific, created quite a stir when it announced it will be giving its business and first-class passengers the option to remove their masks.

For context, Cathay Pacific’s first-class cabin features only six lie-flat seats laid out in a spacious and private 1-1-1 configuration. Each seat is a full 36 inches wide and offers 81 inches of pitch. While Cathay doesn’t offer fully enclosed suites with closing doors like some of its competitors, this configuration offers plenty of privacy. In business class on Cathay’s A350-900s there are 38 lie-flat seats laid out in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration, split among two cabins.

The relaxed restrictions only apply when a passenger’s seat is reclined in the fully-flat position. This might come as a relief to Cathay frequent flyers who are still traveling, but it has raised lots of questions about safety and equality

Related: The ultimate guide to Cathay Pacific first class

Whatever Cathay’s reasoning, the most important question remains:

Is it safe to remove masks while in the fully-flat position in premium cabins onboard aircraft?

We reached out to health experts at Healthline to see what they had to say.

In This Post

What are the health experts saying?

When Healthine’s Dr. Hanh Le, Chief Medical Officer, and Lindsay Slowiczek, Drug Content Integrity Manager, were asked if removing masks while in the fully flat position in premium cabins was safe, the answer was a resounding “no”. (Healthline is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures.)

They branded Cathay’s move a “business decision intended to encourage people to buy more expensive tickets without any foundation in science, evidence or safeguards.”

“It’s a decision that puts everyone, including those in first-class, business-class, economy class, and the flight attendants, at risk,” Dr. Hanh Le added.

Furthermore, the experts said there doesn’t seem to be any scientific reason for the softening of restrictions and provided several reasons to support this.

“Though people will be laying flat versus sitting up, they’re still exposed and not entirely protected from others on the plane. Conversely, others around you aren’t protected from you if you have COVID-19,” they said.

Cathay Pacific employees chat at Hong Kong International Airport (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images)

The second issue is regarding airflow around the cabin. First-class seating or not, passengers are still exposed to potentially harmful droplets.

It’s important to remember that, even if you’re in first-class or business class laying in your private lounger, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t others around you moving in the cabin causing unintentional airflow — caused by changes in air temp when a person, like a flight attendant, is moving throughout an area — which allows respiratory droplets to travel.”

Finally, the experts argue that just because a passenger is flying in a premium cabin, they don’t pose any less of a risk of infection than those in economy.

In fact, business travelers, people who travel on a frequent, routine basis for their jobs, are potentially more likely to have been exposed to others who have COVID, and given that COVID can be transmitted, even if someone is asymptomatic, you cannot assume that it’s safe,” they added. 

As a side note, both Dr. Hanh Le and Lindsay Slowiczeck commented on the importance of continued mask-wearing even if vaccinated.

“It may seem reasonable to not wear a mask on a flight if the person is vaccinated, but in actuality, even after receiving full dosages of the COVID vaccines, the current recommendation is still to wear masks when in enclosed spaces where you cannot remain physically distant from others who are no in your social or familial pod.”

What about other premium carriers?

In a statement to TPG, a Cathay spokesperson said via email that the airline’s new guidelines are “designed to help our crew understand the circumstances under which mask-wearing is exempted. Passengers are required to wear masks at all times except during the short period when they are eating and drinking, and when proper social distancing cannot be maintained. Seats in First and Business Class are more spacious with partitions, and passengers are exempted when lying flat for sleep.”

The spokesperson added that “Our aircraft are equipped with High Efficiency Particulate Arresters (HEPA) filtration systems that are capable of filtering 99.999% of dust particles and airborne contaminants such as viruses and bacteria, ensuring the highest possible cabin air quality. HEPA filters offer a similar level of performance to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms.”

We also reached out to other major international carriers, more specifically those with the most private business and first-class accommodation. In light of Cathay’s announcement, we wondered if this would start a wave of similar announcements as airlines try to compete for the “most comfortable pandemic flying experience” for premium passengers.

Emirates, whose “game-changing” first-class fully-enclosed seats are 76-inches long and 60-inches wide, confirmed to TPG that it would not be relaxing its mask policy.

Related: Review of Emirates A380 first class, Dubai to LA

“As part of our efforts to keep our passengers, colleagues, and communities safe, all passengers must wear a cloth or medical mask throughout their flight. The latest travel advice and requirements are available on the Emirates website,” a spokesperson for Emirates told TPG.

Passengers flying Emirates must wear a cloth or medical mask at Dubai Airport (DXB), during boarding, disembarkation and throughout the flight. Exceptions are only for children under six years old or those who are medically exempt.

Over in neighboring Qatar, the nation’s flag carrier Qatar Airways, whose Qsuites were the first suite-style business-class seats, complete with closing doors, echoed the sentiment. A spokesperson for the airline confirmed to TPG that its mask regulations would not be changing.

Related: A review of Qatar Airways’ Qsuite business class on the 777-300ER, Doha to JFK

“Qatar Airways requires all passengers, regardless of seat assignment, to wear a mask or face covering for the duration of their journey, only to be removed while eating or drinking.”

Bottom line

Now is not the time to start allowing passengers to remove their masks in-flight.

Cathay Pacific is the first and only airline that is actively allowing its premium, business and first-class passengers to remove their masks in the lie-flat position. As pointed out by health experts, Cathay’s decision appears to be a “business decision intended to encourage people to buy more expensive tickets without any foundation in science, evidence or safeguards.”

It will be interesting to see the impact that this bold move by Hong Kong’s national airline has on passenger’s and their trust in the airline. At this point, it could go one of two ways: it could entice the very small number of premium passengers still flying to choose Cathay where they’d be able to lie down mask free. Or, given the clear lack of regard to the safety of passengers and crew, it could have the opposite effect and discourage travelers from flying with Cathay at all.


Featured image by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy

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