Face masks on flights could be here for years to come, according to experts

Feb 1, 2022

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Face masks are likely to become a normal part of the travel experience on flights for quite some time. 

Even as COVID-19 infection rates begin to plateau, borders reopen and travel restrictions lift, aviation experts say face masks are here for the long haul.

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“Get used to them,” is the message from Ryanair’s finance chief, Neil Sorahan, who compared face masks on flights to the liquid restrictions imposed on planes after the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years ago. 

“Masks will be something that will be with us for a while longer to come,” said Sorahan. “If that is the price we have to pay for the next few months, into summer — it’s a small price to pay.”

“It’s a bit like after 9/11, we ended up with our toiletries in plastic bags, maybe we’ll have to live with masks for a while longer.”

A hot stew of international rules will make it “nigh-on impossible” for individual airlines to allow passengers to fly without masks, making them one of the last travel restrictions to go.

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“Until there is a harmonized lifting of mask mandates on flights by governments worldwide it is simpler for airlines to keep the rules in place,” a senior aviation source told The Times newspaper. 

According to sources, airlines are waiting for a cross-industry consensus on mask-wearing, and will not break ranks, resolving instead to “act as one.”

A number of medical experts have told TPG that, while their sophisticated air filtration systems make passenger planes one of the most coronavirus-safe public spaces a person can be in, face masks remain the final line of defense against infection. 

“The primary aim for the mask is to protect the people around you from you, but it is also giving you a layer of protection,” said Dr. Paolo Alves, global medical director for MedAire, which provides medical and safety advice to the airline industry. “Nothing is 100%, in medicine or in life, but I would not go into a place where people weren’t wearing masks if I don’t know them. Not because masks offer 100% protection, but because I want to minimize my odds of getting it.”

Related: If you need to wear a face mask on your next flight, these are your choices

Dr. Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester, said he would wear a surgical mask as a personal rule throughout plane journeys, whether he was told to or not. “I’d wear it through customs at both ends, and in the taxi or train or bus,” he told us. “The only time I’d take it off is when I’m eating. Aside from being vaccinated, masks are the best thing we can do to stay safe.”

British Airways has already confirmed it will continue to make passengers wear face masks on all their flights when the U.K. drops its masking laws next week.

In a statement, the carrier said: “We have no immediate plans to change our mask policy, but keep our policies under review and continue to take advice and guidance from all the appropriate authorities.”

Virgin Atlantic also said that it would continue to review its pandemic health protocols and would “work together across the industry to see when changes can be made.”

The news comes two months after the Federal Aviation Authority said it had seen a record rise in unruly behavior aboard flights, the majority of which were over face masks. Earlier this month a flight bound for London had to return to the U.S. following the disruption caused by a passenger who refused to abide by the current rules for face masks on board the flight.

The latest figures for 2022, released last week, showed that of 151 reports of unruly passengers, 92 were related to mask-wearing.

Featured image by Stefan Cristian Cioata/Getty.

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