People walking in an airport.Share on Pinterest
Face masks will no longer be required on flights in Europe, but health agencies say they remain an important public health tool. David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Face masks will no longer be required on flights in Europe from May 16.
  • The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) announced this change as many European countries have eased pandemic restrictions.
  • The agencies emphasized that face masks remain an important tool in preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Face masks will no longer be required on flights in Europe from May 16, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Wednesday.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said in a statement.

However, some airlines may continue to require masks on their flights, the agencies said. In addition, they told airlines to encourage travelers to wear masks on flights to or from areas with public mask policies.

This comes as a growing number of European countries have lifted pandemic restrictions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had extended its federal mask mandate for public transportation to May 3, but a federal judge struck down that order on April 18.

The Justice Department announced it will appeal the court’s decision after the CDC said the mandate “remains necessary for the public health.”

Although face masks are no longer required on flights in Europe, ECDC Director Andrea Ammon highlighted that they remain an important public health tool.

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission,” she said.

The ECDC recommends that passengers who are coughing or sneezing should “strongly consider” wearing a face mask while traveling.

In addition, those who are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable should wear a face mask to protect themselves, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask, the ECDC said.

When the CDC extended it mask mandate in April, Dr. John Segreti, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection control and prevention at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said he was not surprised, given the rising coronavirus cases at the time.

“Cases are at very low levels, but they are going up a little bit,” he said. “So people are saying, ‘Let’s wait and see what happens in the next two weeks before we make any wholesale changes.’”

As the Omicron wave subsided, many U.S. state and local authorities ended policies requiring people to wear masks in indoor public settings.

However, Philadelphia reinstated its indoor mask mandate in April as coronavirus cases rose in the city. This policy has since ended.

With face masks no longer required on public transportation on many flights, people may face a higher COVID-19 risk while traveling — exactly how much depends on the level of community spread and many other factors.

“Some people will accept this risk and take all measures to protect themselves — that is, being fully vaccinated and wearing an N95 mask — [while] others with different risk tolerance may not be comfortable,” said Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatric infectious disease expert at UC Davis Health.

He recommends that people who choose to wear an N95 mask — and don’t have it fit-tested as a healthcare worker — perform a seal check when putting on their mask.

Segreti expects that even without a mask mandate, a fair number of people will continue to wear masks on planes and other public transportation for a while.

“More and more, people are going to have to do their own risk assessment and decide what makes sense for them,” he said.

This risk assessment includes taking into account their own health.

Those who are immunosuppressed or have risk factors for severe illness with coronavirus infection — such as diabetes, heart disease or smoking tobacco — may want to continue wearing a mask in public spaces, said Segreti.

Wearing a mask can also help protect vulnerable people around you, he said, such as older adults and those who are immunosuppressed.

How much coronavirus is spreading in a community is a key risk factor, but risk also depends on other factors related to the type of public transportation you’ll be taking.

“You have to keep in mind: how many people are in the space, how big is the space, what’s the ventilation in the space and how long will you be there,” said Segreti.

In general, smaller spaces with lots of people tend to be riskier than less crowded, larger settings. But because the coronavirus can spread through the air, better ventilation can reduce that risk.

For example, airplanes tend to have good ventilation, said Segreti, which shifts the risk assessment for travelers.

“If someone in the front of the plane has COVID and you’re sitting in the back, you’re probably not going to get it,” he said. “But if you’re sitting one or two rows in front of a person with COVID, or sitting next to them, then you have a better chance of getting infected.”