Air travel in the United Kingdom is about to have fewer pandemic restrictions. Starting on Wednesday, March 16, two of the nation’s major airlines—British Airways and Virgin Atlantic—will both significantly ease their onboard face mask requirements.
When the new policies take effect on Wednesday, passengers on both airlines will only be required to wear a face covering inside the aircraft if the flight’s destination has a mask mandate in place. On routes serving destinations with no mask requirements, face coverings will not be compulsory on board. On such flights “customers are able to make a personal choice, and we kindly request everyone respects each other’s preferences,” said Jason Mahoney, British Airways’ COO, in a statement on Tuesday.
Virgin Atlantic said the new, relaxed rules would be introduced gradually into its network, starting with optional masks for passengers and crew on its routes from the UK to the Caribbean, which includes flights to Barbados, St. Lucia, and Antigua departing from London Heathrow or Manchester airports.
On board flights to and from the United States, where the TSA federal mask mandate was just extended until at least April 18, fliers with both airlines will still be required to wear a face covering.
Although passengers will be able to choose whether to wear masks once onboard their plane, Virgin Atlantic’s policy says they may be asked to wear a them when boarding or disembarking and at destination airports. “With the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask onboard, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply,” Corneel Koster, Virgin Atlantic’s chief customer and operating officer, said in a statement.
The change coincides with London Heathrow airport ending its mask mandate on March 16. airport officials say they are still strongly encouraging face coverings while inside the facility, especially when in close contact with others. While flights from England (and Northern Ireland) will not require face coverings, the mask changes will not apply to flights operating from Scotland and Wales, which still have public transit mask mandates in place.
“We know some passengers may feel vulnerable, and we are encouraging colleagues to be respectful and put on a face covering when near a passenger who requests it,” says an airport release. Staff will continue to stock extra face masks for travelers who request them, in addition to keeping in place other COVID safety measures, like increased ventilation in the terminals.
Some experts aren’t sure how permanent the changes will ultimately be. “COVID cases currently appear to be increasing in the UK and elsewhere in Europe,” says Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group. “If we see hospitalization and death rates substantially increase in the UK, I won’t be surprised if the mask-wearing requirement is reinstated.” Heathrow officials have noted that the face covering requirements would be brought back if a spike in COVID cases occurs or if another variant of concern appears.
The new policies come as air travel is starting to significantly accelerate worldwide. In the US, the number of airline ticket sales for domestic flights in February 2022 surpassed 2019’s numbers for the first time in the pandemic, according to Adobe Digital Economy Index. It’s a major milestone for the industry.
As for doing away with face masks, Mahoney of British Airways alluded to the fact that the policies are another optimistic sign for the industry, saying: “We welcome this as a really positive step forward.”