UK airlines aim to drop in-flight face mask mandates – but not for South Africans

Business Insider SA
UK flights from South Africa with face masks
(Getty Images)
  • London's Heathrow Airport recently announced that the wearing of face masks had become optional.
  • British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which both fly to South Africa and are based at Heathrow, welcomed the airport's decision and said they would follow suit.
  • But flights with no mask mandates are few and far between, for now, and will only work on routes where destinations don't have pre-existing laws on covering up in public.
  • South Africa has no intention of dropping its mask mandate, even beyond the state of disaster, with passengers aboard British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights still required to cover up.
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Airlines in the United Kingdom, notably British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are easing their face mask mandates on certain routes. South Africans will still have to cover up.

The UK is dropping all its traveller restrictions on Friday. International travellers won't need to complete a passenger locator form, and those who've been vaccinated against Covid-19 won't need to take any tests before arriving.

These changes coincide with London's Heathrow Airport recently announcing its decision to make mask-wearing optional. People travelling through the airport are still "strongly" encouraged to wear face masks – especially when coming into close contact with others – but it will no longer be a firm requirement.

"We have worked hard to keep our passengers and colleagues safe during the pandemic," said Emma Gilthorpe, Heathrow's chief operating officer, in a statement on Monday.

"We acted quickly to institute face coverings as one of our first lines of defence, and we're pleased that we're now able to move away from a mandatory requirement as society learns to live with Covid longer term."

Heathrow's decision to drop mandatory mask-wearing has filtered through to airlines, too. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, with Heathrow as their base of operations, have welcomed the recent changes and have already begun removing mask mandates on some flights.

"We welcome this as a really positive step forward," said British Airways' chief operating officer, Jason Mahoney, reacting to Heathrow's decision.

"As an international airline, we fly to a large number of countries around the world, all of which have their own local restrictions and legal requirements. We're working through these, and from Wednesday 16 March, customers will only be required to wear a face-covering onboard our flights if the destination they're travelling to requires it."

Virgin Atlantic's Corneel Koster said that "customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask on board."

"This policy will be introduced gradually, beginning with our Caribbean services from Heathrow and Manchester airports, and we encourage everyone to be respectful of fellow passengers' mask preferences," said Koster, adding, like Mahoney, that new rules would be guided by country-specific regulations.

South Africa has no intention of dropping its mask mandate, even after the country exits its coronavirus-induced state of disaster. Face masks will still need to be worn on public transport, like airlines, as is currently the case.

Virgin Atlantic makes specific mention of flights to and from Johannesburg and passengers – aged 12 and above – still needing to wear a face mask "until further notice".

British Airways is yet to update its official policy and does not make mention of specific routes where face masks will be optional.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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