Are you wearing the correct face mask for your flight? The latest Covid-19 rules for air travel

Over the past few months, several airlines have banned the use of cloth masks, making specific medical-grade varieties mandatory for boarding planes. Is your facewear fit for travel?

The N95 or KN95 is a similar offering, however, because these are certified in the US, for flights in Europe you’re best off sticking to FFP2 masks.

Photograph by Alamy
By Sarah Barrell
Published 9 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST

Not long after the British government relaxed rules on both international travel and the wearing of masks in public places in the UK, several European airlines introduced strict new rules governing masks, stipulating not just that they were mandatory on board their aircraft but outlining which types were required. As cases of the more transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 increased, and reports continued to stress that cloth masks offer less protection than medical-grade versions, airlines took note. So, if you don’t want to be caught short at the departure gate, it’s worth checking your carrier’s current policy, and bear in mind that rules and guidelines are changing frequently.

What is a medical-grade mask? 

This is either a single-use filtering facepiece respirator (FFP), a surgical mask of the type nurses wear that are often sold in bulk, or an FFP2-type mask — all of which offer some of the highest levels of filtration. They’re each composed of three layers of synthetic non-woven materials, with filtration layers between. Some FFP2 masks will have ‘NR’ at the end of their name, which simply means ‘not reusable’. There are also FFP3 masks, which are usually used to protect against highly toxic solid and liquid materials. Most of the airlines that have mandated the use of medical-grade masks list surgical or FFP2 types as suitable. The N95 or KN95 is a similar offering, however, because these are certified in the US, for flights in Europe you’re best off sticking to FFP2 masks.

What about masks with valves?

Some FFP2 masks have valves built in. Where medical masks are mandated on a plane, FFP2 masks with a valve are deemed not suitable, as they have a relatively high airway resistance, which can cause problems for people with certain illnesses; even healthy people can find wearing such a mask problematic for a full flight. Similarly, masks with exhalation valves are not suitable as they don't protect the people around you.

Which airlines have banned cloth masks? 

Rules differ between airlines, but the carriers that have banned the use of cloth masks in favour of medical-grade or two-layer masks include the following:

Children under a certain age or those not able to wear a mask for medical reasons may be exempt.

Some airlines may ask that you carry spare masks, in case of loss or to replace used ones on longer flights. Medical masks are intended for one-time use, no longer than four hours if you follow World Health Organization guidelines. FFP2 and N95 masks are designed to last one shift for a medical professional (about eight to 12 hours).

Should I buy my masks at the airport? 

While many medical-grade facemasks are sold in airports, don’t rely on being able to buy exactly what you need just before you fly. Unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, surgical-/medical-grade masks are now readily available online and on the high street.

What else do I need to know?

Masks are required on public transport in many countries worldwide, so if you’re travelling to and from the airport this way, check the rules at your destination. Most European carriers’ requirements on mask wearing match the rules at their home destination. If you need to wear a mask on the plane, you’ll likely be expected to wear it in public places when you land. In Germany or Austria, the use of medical-grade face masks extends beyond the plane. They’ve been required in the workplace, on public transport and in shops since the beginning of the year. The French government recommends their use in public places.

Always check with your airline before you travel to ensure you’re up-to-date with the latest guidance.

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