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Travel News Tips for flying during coronavirus: essential face mask information

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Tips for flying during coronavirus: essential face mask information

One very common rule for air travel now is the obligation to wear a face mask, for both passengers and staff. What do travelers need to know? As part of our effort to keep you informed on coronavirus travel information, we’ve collected all the details you need about when to wear a face mask, how to wear one, and where to buy your own. We’ve updated this article on November 19 to include the latest information and advice on face masks for travel.

What are the rules around wearing masks when flying?

Domestic airlines in the US have adopted fairly standard rules around mask-wearing with strict levels of enforcement. Expect that you will be required to wear a mask while traveling. Domestic airlines are requiring travelers and staff to wear face masks or coverings for the duration of their journey for the foreseeable future. Wearing a face mask is mandatory for all carriers as large as American Airlines, Delta, United, and down to smaller carriers like Frontier and Spirit.

Some premium airlines will provide masks if you need one. Airlines such as Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Southwest, and United, are providing masks on a needs basis. Additionally, Allegiant and Delta are handing out hygiene kits to everyone on board. These usually include items such as gloves, antibacterial wipes, and gel. Budget airlines like JetBlue and Hawaiian require face masks to be worn but have a limited supply to give out, so make sure to bring your own. Some airlines such as American and United have stated that refusal to wear a mask will result in suspension from current and future flights.

hand sanitizer and mask

You can take your mask off to eat and drink while in transit but should prioritize hand hygiene and distancing when doing so. Note that some budget airlines have suspended food service altogether. Others (like Delta, and Southwest) are only serving pre-packaged snacks rather than full meals. Before flying, check 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 travelers 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 travelers, and masks can help create a barrier between yourself and another traveler’s germs. A mask, coupled with other preventative measures – such as safe distancing and good hand hygiene – can help protect travelers from spreading coronavirus.

When should I wear a mask?

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

Wherever you are in the world, you’ll almost certainly need to be wearing 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.

person standing in public transportation with a face mask

Unfortunately, it’s not universally mandatory to wear face masks on public transit in the United States. Requirements to wear masks on public transit are on a state-by-state basis. However, masks are compulsory on many ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Check with the local health department websites of the cities you’re traveling to, as well as travel advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the US Department of State for destination-specific guidance.  

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 entrance onwards. Again, with no federal mandate in place airports have a wide variance in policies. High volume airports such as LAX, Chicago O’Hare, and Denver require all visitors to wear masks, while others like Houston George Bush, and Hartford-Jackson Atlanta only require masks for visitors 10 years and older.

Once checked in, passengers are typically asked to keep their face masks on for the entirety of their journey, from boarding and in-flight, through to disembarking at the end of their trip. It’s possible to take off face masks temporarily, to eat and drink as long as social distance (6 feet) is maintained.

Check the website 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. If you want to err on the side of caution, consider wearing your face mask at all times.

a stack of face masks

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. A 100 percent-cotton mask should fit the bill, and make sure it’s machine washable.

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 of 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.

In one example of mask-usage efficacy, the largest hospital system in Massachusetts began requiring all health care workers and patients to begin wearing masks. Incredibly, “positivity rate among health care workers declined from 14.65% to 11.46%, with a decline of 0.49% per day.”

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.

a box of face masks with one sticking out

Where can I buy a mask?

Disposable masks are available in pharmacies 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. London-based fashion designer Florence Bridge makes unisex, cotton face masks from around $15, with a percentage of profits going to the Fuel Our Frontline charity which delivers groceries to hospital workers in the UK. 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 sanitizer. 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 molds 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 maximize 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 when removing your mask to avoid possible contamination, too.

  1. Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer 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.
face masks spread out

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 (140 degrees Fahrenheit) with detergent.

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 sanitize 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 a lot of 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 six feet 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.

ropes to delineate lines at the airport

Overall, wearing a face mask is no guarantee that you are protected from being infected with coronavirus, or any other respiratory disease. But research shows that it can significantly reduce the virus’s transmission, especially when it’s well-fitted, washed regularly, and paired with good hand hygiene and other precautions such as distancing.

“If you put masking with keeping distances, and avoiding congregate settings and crowds, and trying to do things outdoors more than indoors, it makes a difference,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“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,” says Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer.

The WHO updated its guidelines on 20 October with increased recommendations on mask usage in public areas and the same guidelines apply to your behavior 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. Travel bubbles are popping up and some borders are still completely closed.

Whether you decide to travel is up to you. You can even plan for travel now, and book with Flexible Tickets later. You can use resources like the WHO, FCO, and CDC to help you make your decision, and make your journey as safe and comfortable as possible.  

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