British Airways and Virgin Atlantic remove the requirement for face masks on certain flights

(CNN) — Face coverings have become a staple of air travel over the past couple years. For some passengers, they’ve proven divisive — mask non-compliance has been blamed for the majority of US disruptive inflight incidents so far in 2022.

Now they’re starting to vanish from the skies altogether. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are set to make mask-wearing optional for passengers and crew on certain flights from March 16.

Heathrow, BA and Virgin Atlantic say they’re following the government guidance for England and Northern Ireland, where the legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport and indoor spaces has been removed. Masks remain compulsory on public transport in Scotland and Wales.

Smaller UK airlines Jet2 and Tui have also dropped face masks for select flights.

Route-specific rules

Going mask-free will only be permitted on certain Virgin Atlantic and British Airways flights.

That’s because each destination has different rules and laws regarding masks and aviation.

“This policy will be introduced gradually, beginning with our Caribbean services from Heathrow and Manchester airports,” reads a statement from Corneel Koster, Virgin’s chief customer and operating officer. Virgin has published full details on the mask-free flights on its website.

Meanwhile, a statement from British Airways’ chief operating officer Jason Mahoney said BA was “working through” each destinations’ local restrictions and legal requirements.

BA’s official line is that “customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re traveling to requires it.”

However, that doesn’t automatically mean face masks can be left at home when traveling to the UK.

Some destinations currently require masks for inward and outward bound flights — such as the US, where the mask mandate is set to be in place until at least April 18.

Virgin Atlantic says destinations Delhi, Islamabad, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lahore, Lagos, Mumbai, Shanghai and Tel Aviv have similar rules, meaning travelers must continue to mask up on board even if they’re traveling from these places to the UK.

As the face covering rule will now be determined by the specific laws surrounding face coverings in specific destinations, there’s potential for confusion among travelers and airline staff.

In response to a passenger asking about mask-wearing on flights to and from Portugal, a BA representative on Twitter said: “I imagine you wouldn’t need to wear a mask on a flight to the UK, due to UK law around masks. However, this hasn’t been communicated yet.”

Respecting fellow passengers

In their statements, both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways’ statements highlight that passengers should respect other travelers’ preferences on mask-optional flights.

While the move will be welcomed by some who feel the masks have become superfluous thanks to vaccine requirements or weakening virus potency, others are unhappy.

Frequent flier Jade Eyles, an assistant teaching fellow at Imperial College London, tells CNN Travel she thinks one solution could be seating passengers in the cabin in accordance with their face covering preference.

“Keeping those who would like to wear a mask in one section would then reduce the risk of transmission for that population, and supports those individuals who are vulnerable or do want to take additional precautions to not catch Covid-19,” she says.

Neither British Airways nor Virgin Atlantic commented when asked by CNN Travel whether cabins could be divided into sections in accordance with travelers’ mask preference.

Eyles’ partner is based in the US and while her travel to visit him there isn’t currently impacted by the new rules, Eyles says she finds Virgin Atlantic and British Airways’ steps to remove face masks “frustrating.”

“Although air is frequently replaced on planes, I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable sitting next to someone without a mask on,” says Eyles.

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