Europe drops mask mandate for flights and airports, loosening Covid rules further
The EU's mask mandate for passengers on flights and in airports ends on Monday, following updated guidelines from the bloc's Aviation Safety Agency.
Even pilots have had to wear masks on board. Here, a first officer wears a protective face mask as he conducts preflight checks inside the cockpit on board a passenger aircraft operated by Wizz Air at Liszt Ferenc airport in Budapest, Hungary.
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The European Union is set to drop its mask mandate for passengers on flights and in airports from Monday, following an update to guidelines for the aviation industry.
The recommendation for mandatory wearing of medical masks in airports and on board a flight is being lifted on May 16, EU's Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said last week, while noting that a face mask is still one of the best protections against the transmission of Covid-19.
The updated guidance takes into account the latest developments in the pandemic, "in particular the levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity, and the accompanying lifting of restrictions in a growing number of European countries," the EASA said in a statement.
The move is a big step forward and broadly aligns with public transport rules across Europe, according to EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky.
"For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby."
Meanwhile, the ECDC's Director Andrea Ammon said that "while risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal."
There are hopes that the removal of mask-wearing mandates will be a shot in the arm to an aviation and tourism industry hit hard over the last two years, as a significant number of people have put off travelling while there have been extra layers of Covid requirements, from Covid tests and vaccinations to passenger locator forms and mask wearing on board aircraft.
Now, many countries have dropped Covid testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers and passenger locator forms as significant numbers of their populations are fully vaccinated and boosted.
However, individual airlines can still choose to recommend or require mask-wearing on board the EASA said, with rules likely to continue to vary by airline beyond Monday.
For example, flights to or from a destination where mask-wearing is still required on public transport should continue to encourage mask wearing, according to the recommendations. Vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, the EASA added, and social distancing should be encouraged in indoor areas at the airport where possible.
New Covid variants continue to emerge and the pandemic has not been declared officially over, with parts of the world still seeing large Covid outbreaks. Health officials have urged governments to remain cautious, insisting that a new Covid strain could come along that's more virulent and dangerous than the last.
"New VOCs [variants of concern] are frequently discovered with varied degrees of immunity escape and severity of symptoms," the EASA said. Airport staff, crew members and passengers should be particularly alert to the recommendations and requirements of the national authorities of the state of country they are visiting, it added.