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News Face masks for air travel during the Coronavirus pandemic

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Face masks for air travel during the Coronavirus pandemic

One very common rule for air travel now is the obligation to wear a face mask, for both passengers and staff. What do travellers need to know? We’ve collected all the information you need about when to wear a face mask, how to wear one and where to buy your own.

What are the rules around wearing masks when flying?

Different airlines are adopting different rules with varying levels of enforcement, so it’s best to check with your airline prior to your planned travel date. In general, many airlines are encouraging travellers to wear face masks or coverings for the duration of the journey. Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia recommend masks but are not enforcing them. However, wearing a face mask is mandatory for many big carriers such as American Airlines, Air France, KLM, Qatar Airways and the Lufthansa group. British Airways asks passengers to replace their face masks with a fresh one every 3-4 hours.

Most premium airlines will provide masks if you need one. Some airlines require passengers to wear masks, such as Emirates and Etihad and are handing out hygiene kits to everyone on board. These usually include face masks, gloves, antibacterial wipes and gel. Budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair require face masks to be worn but don’t provide them.

You can take your mask off to eat and drink while in transit, but should prioritise hand hygiene and distancing when doing so. Note that some budget airlines have suspended food service altogether, such as easyJet. Others (Emirates, United Airlines and British Airlines) are only serving pre-packaged snacks rather than full meals. Check in advance whether you will need to bring your own supplies.

Why should I wear a mask when flying?

Wearing a face mask is one of a number of ways that travellers can help limit the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Evidence shows that coronavirus is primarily a respiratory-transmitted disease, so wearing a mask over your mouth and nose can help reduce the risk of transmission from person to person. It’s important to wear a mask when flying because you’ll often be in close proximity to other travellers, and masks can help create a barrier between yourself and another traveller’s germs. A mask, coupled with other preventative measures – such as safe distancing and good hand hygiene – can help protect travellers from spreading coronavirus.

Read: How safe is flying during COVID-19?

When should I wear a mask?

Do I need to wear a mask going to and from the airport?

Depending on where you are in the world, you might need to wear a face mask for the duration of your plane journey. But it’s highly likely that you’ll be required to wear a face mask on your journeys to and from the airport, too. In Australia, this depends on whether or not the region you are travelling to or from is considered a COVID-19 hotspot.

It is recommended to wear face masks on all public transport in Australia. Some countries, like the UK, Spain and France, mandate wearing a mask on public transport and passengers who don’t comply risk incurring fines. Masks are also compulsory on many ride-sharing services like Lyft, Ola and Uber in some regions of Australia. Check-in with the local health department websites of the cities you’re travelling to, or travel advice from the Australian Government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), for destination-specific advice.  

At what point in the airport do I need to wear a mask?

Rules vary between airports but generally face masks should be worn from check-in onwards. As part of the Qantas new Fly Well program, face masks will be provided onboard and are recommended to use. However, London Heathrow says that ‘all passengers aged eleven and older are required to wear face coverings at all times within our terminal buildings’, and some carriers such as Ryanair require passengers to wear face masks in the airport before boarding.

Once checked in, passengers are typically asked to keep their face mask on for the entirety of their journey, from boarding and in-flight, through to disembarking at the end of your trip.

Check the websites for your departure and arrival airports, plus your chosen airline, and always have your face mask handy just in case you need to put it on.

What should I look for in a mask?

Disposable vs reusable: are single-use, paper masks better, or is a cloth mask OK?

Near-total protection from respiratory infections can only be provided by N95 respirator masks, which are properly fitted and typically used by healthcare workers. As these masks are needed by medical workers, and experts say that the average person doesn’t need a surgical-grade mask, those of us who aren’t on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic will be wearing either disposable paper masks, or reusable, washable cloth masks.

Evidence suggests that both types of face masks protect others from you if you’re carrying the virus; if an infected person sneezes on a plane, the transmission risk is far lower if they sneeze into a face mask than into the air. Research suggests that wearing a mask reduces transmission by up to 79 percent. However, some materials may trap virus particles better than others, so bear that in mind when buying a cloth mask.

Remember that if you’re wearing it for a long period of time, a cloth mask has to feel comfortable and breathable. The Australian Department of Health recommends wearing a mask that is 2-3 layers of different fabrics with adequate filtering efficiency. These masks should fit well while being breathable.

There’s an environmental incentive for buying cloth masks, too. Research by students at UCL shows that if every person in the UK used one single-use mask each day for a year, an extra 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste would be created. Investing in reusable masks drastically reduces the impact on plastic waste and climate change.

How do you know the effectiveness of a mask?

The effectiveness of mask use, outside of surgical masks, is still being researched. While non-surgical masks cannot fully protect you from inhaling virus particles, the CDC suggests that any covering, even a scarf, is better than none. The general consensus is that the closer-fitting the mask, the more effective it is.

A disposable, medical mask can block moisture droplets, but as the sides are not completely sealed, there’s still a risk of inhaling the virus. The same goes for a cloth mask, although for homemade masks, different household materials remove different levels of viruses and bacteria. One US study compared them, and found that good options include multiple layers of material and heavyweight quilter’s cotton.

When you’re buying non-surgical-grade masks, their effectiveness will be listed in their description, as well as the percentage of particles they are expected to block, so always read and compare the small print.

Where can I buy a mask?

Disposable masks are available in chemists and local supermarkets, but as mask-wearing could be the norm for the foreseeable future, many shoppers are turning to the online marketplace to buy reusable, machine-washable, fabric masks.

Amazon and Etsy are a good place to start, but dig a bit deeper to invest in masks made by independent creators or companies with a charitable element. SisterWorks, a not-for-profit social enterprise, offers both unisex, his and hers face handmade reusable masks starting from $12. New York-based company Face Mask Aid sells packs of five washable, reusable masks for $50 and donates proceeds to frontline workers.

How do I wear a mask?

If you need to wear a face mask, it’s important to ensure you’re wearing it correctly and following guidance on how to put them on, take them off, and in the case of reusable masks, how to ensure you’re able to use them again safely. The WHO offers comprehensive guidelines and easy-to-understand instructional videos, too, so you can see exactly how to wear a face mask.

How do I put my mask on?

A face mask or face covering should fully cover your nose and mouth, but you should still be able to breathe comfortably without obstruction.

  1. To start, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser. The WHO recommends rubbing alcohol-based hand rub for 20 to 30 seconds or washing your hands with soap and water for 40-60 seconds. 
  2. Next, ensure your mask itself is clean and not damaged – this means you also shouldn’t have previously worn it without washing or replacing it. If you’ve previously used your mask and haven’t washed it, you’ll need to wash it before using it again. If you’re using disposable masks, these are single-use, and you should get a new disposable face mask each time. 
  3. Put on the mask, securing the loops behind each ear or behind your head, depending on your mask type. The mask should cover your nose and mouth and fit comfortably over your chin, with no open gaps on the sides. 
  4. For disposable medical masks, the pliable metal piece should go over the bridge of your nose, and the white side of the mask is usually the interior; the blue side, the exterior. Pinch the metal part on the bridge of your nose so that it moulds to your nose shape. 
  5. Avoid touching your face mask whenever you’re wearing it.
  6. If your mask gets dirty or wet, make sure you replace it with a new one. 

How do I do a fit test to maximise protection?

Your mask should fully cover your nose, mouth and chin, and fit snugly behind your ears or behind your head. There shouldn’t be gaps on the side of your mask. The WHO advises that if there are gaps, the mask won’t be effective in preventing respiratory droplets from reaching you or transmitting from you to other people. If your mask doesn’t fit properly, don’t use it, and be sure to find an alternative mask or face covering that fits better.

How do I safely remove my mask?

Just as with putting on a face mask, you need to take care removing your mask to avoid possible contamination, too.

  1. Wash your hands or use hand sanitiser first, just like you did to put the face mask on.
  2. Without touching the front of the mask, remove it by the loops behind your ears or behind your head, pulling it away from your face. Continue holding it by the ear loops. 
  3. For single-use medical masks, you should dispose of these immediately after use, preferably in a bin that you can close the lid.
  4. For fabric masks, place used masks in a sealable plastic bag until you can wash it. When you wash it, remove the mask from the plastic bag by the ear straps only, and wash in hot water with detergent.

Can I wear my mask more than once?

You should not wear your face mask again once you’ve already used it. However, a reusable fabric face mask can be worn again, but you need to ensure it’s been washed after every single use, ideally in hot water (60 degrees Celsius) with detergent. Masks can become less effective as they get damp and will likely need to be replaced every three to four hours.

Disposable face masks should never be worn more than once. Always dispose of these properly after each use. 

How often do I need to wash my mask?

You should wash your reusable fabric face mask after every time you wear it. For example, if you’ve spent all day out and about with the mask on, you should plan to wash it when you get home before putting it back on. The WHO recommends that you wash your fabric mask in hot water with detergent to ensure its cleanliness so you can wear it again. It’s best to have two or three masks on rotation so that you don’t risk running out.

How do I safely dispose of my mask?

The WHO advises that for disposable face masks, you should first wash or sanitise your hands with an alcohol-based hand gel. Then, remove the ear straps from behind your ears or behind your head without touching the front of the mask, and holding the ear straps, dispose of the face mask in a rubbish bin – ideally with a lid.

What are some other ways to stay healthy while in flight and at the airport?

There are many practical steps you can take. Regularly wash your hands (with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand gel), avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth and stay at least two metres away from someone who is coughing or sneezing. You should also bring your own food and drink supplies when possible, including a refillable bottle for water.

The WHO offers comprehensive guidelines about how to reduce the risk of transmission and infection in public places. We recommend that these are followed in transit as well as in any public space, while the coronavirus continues to be a threat.

Overall, wearing a face mask is not a guarantee that you are protected from being infected with coronavirus, or any other respiratory disease. But research shows that they can significantly reduce the virus’s transmission, especially when they’re well-fitted, washed regularly and paired with good hand hygiene and other precautions such as distancing.

“Wearing a face covering is an added precaution that may have some benefit in reducing the likelihood that a person with the infection passes it on,” says Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer.

“The most effective means of preventing the spread of this virus remains following social distancing rules and washing your hands regularly. It does not remove the need to self-isolate if you have symptoms.”

The WHO recommends fabric face masks in public areas where there may be a COVID-19 outbreak, and the same guidelines apply to your behaviour in transit. Many governments – including in the UK, USA, UAE and Thailand – still advise against all non-essential international travel, while the pandemic is ongoing. Australia’s border is currently closed to international travel, with minor exceptions.

Whether you decide to travel within Australia is up to you. You can use resources like the WHO, Australian Department of Health, and Smart Traveller.  

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