Travelers booking a flight need to be prepared to mask up from the time they step into the airport and throughout the duration of their flight. And with the surge of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, it’s prudent to wear the type of mask that will best protect them and others from the virus.
Masks are now required on all public transportation and while at transportation hubs (such as airports). The U.S. federal mandate first announced in January 2020 has been extended through January 18, 2022, regardless of a traveler’s vaccination status.
Wondering which type of mask will keep you safe?
A new study by engineering researchers at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) confirms the conventional wisdom: Not all masks afford the same protection.
Research design and findings in brief
Using a mannequin to simulate a seated person breathing in a large room, the Canadian researchers found that although cloth and blue surgical masks afford valuable protection, they still allow a significant buildup of exhaled droplets that travel through the air and pass through masks.
In a paper published in the journal Physics of Fluids, the researchers conclude that high-efficiency masks, such as KN95s, offer substantially higher filtration efficiencies for exhaled minute aerosols (60% and 46% for R95 and KN95 masks, respectively) than more commonly used cloth (10%) and surgical masks (12%), making them the recommended choice for mitigating airborne disease transmission indoors.
“There is no question it is beneficial to wear any face covering, both for protection in close proximity and at a distance in a room,” said Professor Serhiy Yarusevych, the lead author of the study. “However, there are serious differences in the effectiveness of different masks when it comes to controlling aerosols.”
Implications for mask-wearing on planes
Do the study findings apply to passengers on airplanes?
In an email interview, Dr. Yarusevych noted that airplanes generally have relatively high-capacity ventilation systems. While this should provide some assurance to travelers, he went on to say that recommended social distance measures (the 6-feet or two arms lengths recommended by the CDC) are often not adhered to on flights.
“Thus, having a higher grade mask is certainly highly recommended due to the direct proximity to other people,” he says. “To minimize the risk of infection one would want to use better masks and higher capacity ventilation. From this perspective, replacing homemade masks, which are usually the least effective face coverings for aerosol control, with better masks would certainly reduce the overall risk of infection onboard.”
“Based on our study the highest protection is provided by an N95 mask, followed by a KN95 mask,” he adds. Cloth masks only filter 10% of exhaled small droplets; most of these aerosols escape due to poor mask fit, mainly through the top of the mask.
Changing airline mask policies
A recent article published in the industry news publication TravelPulse.com reports that some airlines, particularly international carriers, are beginning to ban fabric face masks.
But airline mask requirements vary widely by carrier and by destination. And like most COVID-19 public health measures, they are subject to change based on emerging scientific findings and fluctuations in infection rates.
Some examples of current mask policies (posted on respective airline websites) are noted below:
Acceptable face coverings include a mask or two-layered secure cloth that completely covers a passenger’s nose and mouth and fits snugly to the sides of their face and under their chin.
Delta similarly permits cloth masks with tightly woven fabric as well as fabric masks with a clear plastic window.
Finnair tweeted a new policy banning fabric masks earlier this week. The airline permits surgical masks and more robust FFP2 or FFP3 respirator masks (without a valve).
Medical face masks are mandatory on all flights to and from Germany during boarding, on board, and when leaving the aircraft. The carrier recommends that passengers bring several masks on long-haul flights.
SWISS INTERNATIONAL AIR LINES
A spokesperson for Swiss International Airlines confirms that the carrier accepts surgical masks, community masks (or fabric masks) and FFP2 masks (KN95 and N95 without valves); these regulations apply equally to crew and guests. While fabric masks are accepted on most flights, there are some exceptions (for example, on flights to and from Germany) where regulations do not allow these masks.
Air France passengers are required to wear surgical masks from the time they arrive at the airport and while on board the aircraft for the entire flight. Since last January, passengers on long-haul flights have been receiving a complimentary surgical mask (along with a virucidal disinfectant wipe and hand sanitizer) as part of a hygiene kit.
Travelers are required to wear a face mask with no vents or openings that fully covers their nose and mouth.
Mask up before you fly
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that air travel increases the risk of getting and spreading COVD-19 because of close contact with other people over prolonged periods of time. Air travel also entails spending time in busy airports and waiting on security lines where people may not be socially distanced from one another.
While N95 and KN95 masks are considerably more expensive than surgical masks, they offer not only better protection but greater peace of mind while flying. It’s prudent, especially on long-haul flights, to heed the research findings and wear the most efficient mask you can.
In a column in The Wall Street Journal, travel editor Scott McCartney also points out that “masks provide additional protection” during those rare occasions when air circulation is turned off in the cabin (e.g., during flight delays on the ground)
Before you fly, be sure to check the website of your specific carrier to find out the airline’s mask policies and rules currently in effect. And a reminder: Refusing to mask up when flying isn’t an option. In the U.S., it’s a federal offense that could result in a fine of up to $35,000.