Despite the United Kingdom having the second-highest COVID-19 death rate in the world and recording more novel Coronavirus infections that any other European country, its national flag carrier British Airways has eschewed some of the safety measures already implemented by the vast majority of other airlines. Face masks remain an optional extra when flying British Airways and reports suggest many passengers and even cabin crew still aren’t wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
British Airways tells us that masks and other PPE are made available to cabin crew but the decision to wear one still rests with the individual crew member and takeup is said to remain low. That policy is at odds with recommendations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which suggests face masks and non-surgical face coverings should be mandatory for crew and passengers respectively.
The European Air Safety Agency (EASA) has also laid out guidelines requiring face masks for crew and passengers, while the British government has told the public to wear a face-covering in enclosed public spaces since May 11. This is particularly important, the advice says, when social distancing “isn’t possible and where you will come into contact with people you do not normally meet.”
Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA’s parent company International Consolidated Airline Group (IAG) recently confirmed that British Airways would not enforce social distancing on flights by blocking the middle seat or restricting passenger loads.
“Evidence suggests that wearing a face-covering does not protect you,” official government guidance explains. “However, if you are infected but have not yet developed symptoms, it may provide some protection for others you come into close contact with.” Experts believe face coverings are, therefore, only effective when the majority of people wear one.
“We have taken several steps to greatly reduce contact between customers and crew, and personal protective equipment is available to them,” a spokesperson for British Airways told us. “We follow all the guidance from the UK Government and global health authorities, including Public Health England and the World Health Organisation,” the statement continued.
The spokesperson did not say why it’s current policy remains at odds with recent guidelines published by industry leaders or why the airline has so far chosen not to follow the lead of its competitors. Late Friday, the airline updated guidance requesting but not mandating passengers to wear face masks.
In Europe, the likes of Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, easyJet, Finnair and Ryanair now require or will soon mandate the wearing of face masks for both crew and passengers. Even fellow IAG airlines, Aer Lingus and Iberia have already mandated masks for all and the Spanish flag carrier says it will offer COVID-19 antigen and antibody tests for all staff.
Across the Pond, the majority of US airlines also require face masks. American and United Airlines also board from back to front and deplane front to back to enable better social distancing. Delta, JetBlue and Southwest will restrict passenger loads for the next few months and Frontier will conduct temperature tests on passengers before they are allowed on board.
Thermal screening has also been adopted at a number of Asian and Middle Eastern airlines including Emirates and Qatar Airways who have also equipped cabin crew with goggles and disposable gowns or full hazmat suits. Similar equipment and rules have been enforced by Cathay Pacific, Taiwan’s Eva Air and Japan Airlines.
British Airways was unable to confirm whether protective measures like perspex cough guards have been installed at airport check-in counters or whether electrostatic disinfectant sprays were being deployed to keep its planes virus free. The spokesperson noted, however, that the airline “adheres to industry and regulatory requirements and safety standards, and we always meet – or exceed – our obligations under regulations.”
The airline also said it had taken steps to reduce contact between cabin crew and passengers by providing pre-prepared refreshments and stopping its hot towel service. “These measures are constantly reviewed and enhanced wherever possible,” the spokesperson added.
British Airways has greatly reduced its flight schedule because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but continues to operate a small number of scheduled services and repatriation flights. Plans to start a “meaningful” return to service in July may be scuppered after the British government announced plans to impose a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all new arrivals.
Industry analysts believe enhanced and highly visible health protection measures are key to rebuilding trust and confidence in the safety of air travel as lockdowns are slowly eased and airlines rebuild their schedules. Those expert views have been backed up by passengers in at least one study which found that one of the top drivers for choosing an airline now included its ability to ensure customer wellbeing and health. The cost of a ticket and suitable flight times remained the two other most important drivers.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.