EASA Calls For Masks In COVID-19 Flying Rules

Medical face masks should be worn by crew and passengers at all stages of the journey, the report says.
Credit: Ryanair

PARIS—EASA has set out guidelines for flying in the COVID-19 era that include a requirement for passengers and crew to wear face masks at all times. 

In the document, produced in partnership with the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued May 20, there is a warning that the new protocols may lead to an increase in unruly passenger behavior. 

EASA and ECDC were charged by the European Commission (EC) with drawing up the report, which is part of a wider package of measures to help transport and travel safely restart following the outbreak of COVID-19. The majority of scheduled passenger flights have been canceled because of travel restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

The document did not call for airlines to leave an empty middle seat on board to ensure physical distancing—a measure IATA has said would be economically damaging to airlines hit hard by the crisis.  

Nevertheless, airlines should ensure physical distancing among passengers as much as possible, EASA said. 

“Family members and individuals traveling together as part of the same household can be seated next to each other. The seat allocation process should be modified accordingly,” according to the report. “If physical distancing cannot be guaranteed because of the passenger load, seat configuration or other operational constraints, passengers and crew members on board an aircraft should adhere at all times to all the other preventive measures including strict hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette and should wear a face mask.” 

Medical face masks should be worn by passengers and crew at all stages of the journey, from the moment they enter the airport, the two agencies said. An exception to this rule should be made during security checks, for children under six, and for those with medical reasons not to wear them. Staff working behind protective screens would also be exempt. 

EASA said passengers should be regularly reminded of preventive measures such as hand hygiene, coughing into an elbow and limiting the touching of surfaces. Any traveler refusing to comply should be refused access/disembarked or dealt with according to the procedure for unruly passengers, depending on the stage of the journey. Further action may be taken by local authorities at the departure airport. 

The report warned that the new measures could mean an increase in unruly or disruptive passengers, either inflight or in the airport. 

“This may be due to passengers not wishing to sit next to each other or accusing each other of not following the rules. There is a strong potential for conflict if it is not managed properly,” EASA said. 

“In the worst-case, panic could become quite a serious threat to flight safety—for example if there are significant displacements within the cabin. To address this, operators are invited to consider the raised likelihood of these factors within their procedures and training.” 

Meanwhile, recommendations for the practice of thermal screening of passengers in airports are set out in the document. There is a warning that the method has many limitations and little evidence of effectiveness in detecting COVID-19 cases, many of which are asymptomatic.

Access to airport terminals should be limited to passengers, crew members and staff as far as possible, with exceptions for situations such as people picking up an unaccompanied minor or helping a passenger with reduced mobility. 

In line with applicable data protection rules, passengers should provide a statement regarding their COVID- 19 status before being issued a boarding pass, EASA said. 

The guidelines emphasize the importance of informing passengers of the measures in place before they arrive at the airport. They also set out steps for airport operators to take, such as enhanced cleaning, disinfection and ventilation for airports, and protective screens for staff in fixed locations interacting with passengers.

Airlines should ensure self-check-in is available. Systems such as mobile check-in and non-contact boarding should be prioritized to minimize the touching of surfaces. 

Hand luggage on board should be limited to ensure smooth boarding and disembarkation. Movement within the cabin should be discouraged, which in practice means minimizing queuing for toilets and providing a reduced cabin service—the minimum necessary to ensure comfort and well-being standards on board. 

“High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters have demonstrated good performance with particles of the size of the SARS-Cov-2 virus size,” EASA said. “Aeroplane operators using the recirculation of cabin air are recommended either to install and use HEPA filters, according to the manufacturer’s specifications, or to avoid the use of cabin air recirculation entirely, provided it is confirmed that this will not compromise any safety critical functions (e.g. avionics cooling, cabin pressurization etc.). When HEPA filters are installed, recirculation fans should not be stopped but increased fresh air flow should be used by selecting high pack flow whenever possible.”

Airlines and airport operators should work together to ensure that passengers are not kept on board an aircraft without proper ventilation for longer than 30 minutes. 

The protocol follows broader guidelines issued by the EC on May 13 in which it also called for passengers to wear face masks in airports and aboard aircraft.

The EASA and ECDC strategy for the industry to adopt should emphasize discouraging symptomatic passengers, crew members and staff from coming to the airport; implementing social distancing of 1.5 m (4.9 ft.) between individuals; enhanced hygiene measures for staff and passengers; and enhanced cleaning of facilities.

Airport operators should take measures to prevent queuing in high passenger concentration areas as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of contamination posed by unnecessary human interaction. If queuing is unavoidable, floor markings should be used to keep passengers 1.5 m apart to help maintain physical distancing, EASA said. 

EASA said the reopening of non-essential airport services should be pursued, initially opening those that can ensure physical distancing with respect to national provisions on similar services outside of the airport. Where they cannot be opened, free water should be provided. 

The agency said testing passengers in order to allow flying under so-called immunity passports was not supported by current scientific knowledge. EASA and ECDC are monitoring scientific developments and would update their recommendation as appropriate if a suitable test becomes available. 

“Passengers have to have confidence that taking to the skies again in a confined space with other people poses the minimum possible risk to their health,” European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean said. “The protocol released today will reassure passengers that it is safe for them to fly and so help the industry recover from the effects of this pandemic.”

EASA said the new protocol would be updated regularly as knowledge about the disease and transmission risks evolves.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.