Monday marks the end of the Covid travel nightmare in Europe – but there's a catch

·6-min read
Mask rules for flying to Europe - Ladanifer/iStockphoto
Mask rules for flying to Europe - Ladanifer/iStockphoto

It started with a sock. The date was June 15, 2020 and I had a ticket for easyJet’s first flight after Lockdown One: the 7am from Gatwick to Glasgow. This was a symbolic flight for the low-cost carrier. Britain was moving again, back in the air. And it was also the first time the UK airline had demanded all passengers to wear a face mask on board. I didn’t own one yet, so I made a mask out of a (clean) old sock instead.

Fast forward two years and I was on a flight from one island of the Azores archipelago to another, just a couple of weeks ago. The face mask rule remained in place, a blanket measure across the EU, and this time I had a proper, non-sock-based mask strapped to my face. As did everyone on the flight, although not everybody wanted to wear one.

As the pilot prepared to take off, a man two rows behind me was growing increasingly agitated as the air steward asked him to raise his mask to cover his nose. He started shouting, the steward made a hurried phone call, and the plane stopped moving. He stood up, now arguing in Portuguese with another man at the back of the plane who was furious with the hold up. More people stood up. A fracas ensued. Eventually the plane turned around and returned to the gate, the police came on board and removed the man from the plane.

The pandemic has been a period of great disruption for holidaymakers and the aviation industry, but on Monday we can celebrate a tentative full stop to the era of wearing masks on flights. The EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced yesterday that face masks will no longer have to be worn in flights or in airports in EU countries, as of the beginning of next week.

For many British families looking forward to their summer holiday, this will come as something of a relief. After face masks were dropped in the UK on January 27, it has felt rather jarring to travel to the airport on an underground carriage, unsheathed, then to navigate an airport, unsheathed, to stand in a queue of fellow passengers, unsheathed, but then to have to cover up for your flight. Particularly now that, for many EU countries, Covid rules such as testing (and, indeed, masks) have been dropped.

Aside from the fact that we are now very much in the “living with Covid” stage of the pandemic, questions have been raised about the necessity for passengers to wear a mask on board flights.

Thanks to their hospital-grade HEP (high-efficiency particulate) filters, the air inside a plane cabin is changed more than 25 times an hour; a system that removes 99.97 per cent of airborne viruses and bacteria, states the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

They are better than nothing, of course, and are clearly a good idea if you have any kind of respiratory virus symptoms, but imposing such a restrictive measure on asymptomatic passengers feels like surplus to requirement.

There have been logical gaps in the rule, too. On that flight in the Azores just two weeks ago, with the agitated fellow, I was permitted to lower my mask to sip a drink or eat a snack on board, for as long as I pleased. What was the more transmissible act? Me doing that, or our friend refusing to cover his nose? Like many pandemic precautions, masks on flights have become performative more than anything. A virtuous signal that airlines and governments are “doing something” to make people safe, when many passengers would feel happier to simply have an unimpeded air flow.

The travel industry will certainly welcome the rule change. Paul Charles, CEO of The PC Agency, which advises governments on Covid travel rules, said: “The change in mask rules is a major step forward for the European bloc and will make leisure and business trips from this Monday appear almost normal again, as well as refreshingly comfortable.

“But we need to see all passenger locator forms and unnecessary testing removed as well across Europe and beyond. Travel is truly global and it needs all continents, especially America, to take such steps and remove remaining restrictions. Only then can consumer confidence be fully rebuilt, with those travelling reassured that they have no more unpredictable hurdles to jump in terms of forms, costly tests and mandatory mask-wearing.”

Monday’s EU rule change is only a tentative full stop, however, written in pencil, for it does not mark the end of the road for masks on all flights to EU destinations. An easyJet spokesperson told Telegraph Travel: “On flights where masks are no longer legally required at both ends of the route, we do not require customers and crew to wear masks onboard and we are progressively removing the requirement where countries at both ends of a route no longer legally mandate this.”

But they added: “When flying to or from countries where mask requirements remain in place, we will follow the relevant legal requirement and we continue to provide information to customers detailing the specific mask requirements on their flight.” Ryanair has also confirmed it will only drop face masks on flights to EU states where masks do not remain mandatory on public transport.

This means that, for now at least, travel to countries such as Spain, Greece, France, Italy and Portugal will come with a face mask on the flight there. A spokesperson from the Spain tourist board confirmed this to the Telegraph, saying: “You still need to wear a mask on planes, trains, buses, public transport, and enclosed areas on ships.”

The other 10 countries that require mandatory face masks on public transport (and therefore, incoming flights) are: Austria, Cyprus, Czech, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands.

There are two pieces of good news, however. The first is that many EU countries – at least 20 – have scrapped all mask rules, Croatia, Sweden and Norway among them. The second piece of good news is that it is expected that many of the remaining countries such as Italy and Spain will relax their rules in the coming days, to fall in line with the new EASA health guidelines. France has already announced that it will be dropping its mask requirements on public transport from Monday May 16.

These changes will come in dribs and drabs, however, in the run up to the summer holiday season, so Monday is as good a moment as any to take a deep breath. This protocol to mask up, symbolic of the height of pandemic precaution but increasingly destitute, is nearly over.

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