While air travel has been recovering from the pandemic restrictions, one aspect has remained as a reminder of Covid-19: the face-cover mandate. In a big week for the UK’s travel sector, not only are Passenger Locator Forms due to be dropped for travel to the UK from 4am on 18th March, but London’s Heathrow has now stated that visitors will no longer be required to wear a face covering at the airport from Wednesday, 16 March. Heathrow still encourages people to continue wearing a face covering at the airport, particularly when coming into close contact with others, although this will no longer be a firm requirement. The relaxation of the rule applies across all of Heathrow’s terminals, office spaces and bus and railway stations.
Heathrow will maintain various Covid-secure measures, including enhanced ventilation in all terminal buildings, and has stated that, should a significant rise in Covid cases or a future variant of concern materialise, the airport “will not hesitate” to reinstate the mandatory use of face coverings.
Heathrow COO, Emma Gilthorpe, said of the rule change: “We have worked hard to keep our passengers and colleagues safe during the pandemic. 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. While we still recommend wearing them, we can be confident the investments we’ve made in Covid-secure measures – some of which aren’t always visible – combined with the fantastic protection provided by the vaccine will continue to keep people safe while travelling. We’re gearing up for a busy summer travel season, and this change means we can look forward to welcoming our passengers back with a smile as we get them safely away on their journeys.”
Heathrow’s home carriers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, have welcomed the move, and have indicated that they are preparing to follow suit by dropping the face-cover requirement onboard their aircraft as soon as regulatory requirements for their destinations allow.
Corneel Koster, Virgin Atlantic’s chief customer & operating officer, commented, “As we learn to live with Covid and with the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask onboard, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply. 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.
“Across our network, we continue to adhere to all regulatory requirements both in the UK and in destination countries, recognising that mask requirements differ by market. Masks will still be required on many of our routes, including flights operating to or from the United States until 18 April at the earliest.”
Jason Mahoney, British Airways’ COO added, “We welcome this as a really positive step forward. 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 March 16, customers will only be required to wear a face-covering onboard our flights if the destination they’re travelling to requires it. For destinations where the wearing of a face covering is not mandated, our customers are able to make a personal choice, and we kindly request everyone respects each other’s preferences.”