For most of us, masks have become essential daily devices for the first time in our lives. In many areas of the world, masks and respirators are required anytime you set foot outside your home. In other regions of the world, masks are required on all forms of public transport.
One of these forms of transport, flights, is particularly problematic. Not only are passengers stuck in close proximity with many other individuals, but flights are often very long. For most people, there are very few situations in which you might need to wear a mask for four hours, eight hours, or even ten hours straight.
However, this is precisely the case on flights. While some airlines will allow passengers to remove masks for food and drinks temporarily, masks are required 99% of the time. Over such an extended period, this necessity can become very burdensome and uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, when it comes to flying in 2022, masks are essential and can't be avoided. For that reason, today, we wanted to discuss everything you need to know about masks and flying.
We will first take a deep dive into the whys and hows of masks in flight. Why are they required? How effective are they? Can they prevent COVID-19 transmission in such contained environments?
Secondly, we will look at the current mask restrictions set by both airlines and local governments. There is no consistent rule across the aviation industry at the current point in time. This can make it challenging to find the exact requirements at any given time. In this article, we will cover some of the most common rules.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will discuss how to pick a comfortable mask that doesn't sacrifice performance. No one wants to wear an uncomfortable mask for hours upon hours while in an already awkward airplane interior!
While picking a comfortable mask isn't hard in itself, it's hard to find a device that balances protection with fit and comfort. So in this article, we want to pay particular attention to how you can choose a mask that stays comfortable - even after flights as long as 12 hours!
So, if you're planning to travel in the near future this article will cover everything you need to know. With that being said, let's get started!
Why are Masks Required on Flights?
Before we jump into choosing a suitable mask for flying, it’s important to discuss why precisely high-filtration masks and respirators are required on flights. In 2022 cloth masks no longer cut it - you will want a high-quality device that’s capable.
At this point, there is ample evidence proving that both masks and respirators decrease the spread of COVID-19, albeit at vastly different rates. However, with that being said, it wasn’t until recently that we knew the exact risks involved. Therefore, this section will be referencing a recent study (1).
Carried out by German researchers, the study investigates the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a range of different circumstances. In one case, both the infected and susceptible individuals are only social distancing (at ten feet). After this, combinations of social distancing, using surgical masks, and donning respirators are compared.
It is instantly apparent that social distancing is a last resort method to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even at ten feet, the susceptible individual has a 90% chance of contracting the disease from the speaking, infected individual in a matter of minutes.
In-flight, when you are forced to sit within ten feet of ten people or more at any given time, this virtually guarantees that passengers will contract COVID-19 if an infected individual is near. This shows why masks are not just travelling essentials on planes but also on buses and trains.
This 90% chance to spread COVID-19 over a few minutes with only social distancing becomes 30 minutes when the susceptible person is wearing a surgical mask (but the infected individual is not). However, with the susceptible person wearing an FFP2 (or equivalent) device, there is only a 20% chance of them catching COVID-19 even after an hour.
While these stats show just how effective surgical masks are compared to no mask and how effective respirators are compared to surgical masks, the study goes even further. Only the susceptible individual was wearing a mask in these situations mentioned above. However, what happens when both people are wearing masks?
Well, if both the infected and susceptible are wearing surgical masks, the chances of COVID-19 spreading after one hour are only 30%. Most importantly, however, is that if both individuals are wearing FFP2 (or equivalent) non-fit-tested respirators, this chance drops an astronomical amount to only 0.4%.
That means, at a distance of five feet, where an infected individual is speaking, the second individual only has a 0.4% chance of contracting COVID-19 even after one hour! But, of course, this only applies if both people are wearing certified respirators.
It’s essential to remember that this is for non-fit-tested FFP2, N95, (authentic) KN95, and KF94 devices. If both individuals wear fitted respirators, it takes well over 1000 hours for the vulnerable person to inhale an infectious dose.
This research shows what we’ve known for a while - any mask is better than no mask. But, for the best protection, a respirator is far better than a surgical or cloth mask. This also shows why many airlines and governments require masks on flights.
Without masks, an infected individual would likely spread COVID to all adjacent and many nearby passengers. If everyone wore a mask besides the infected person, COVID-19 would likely spread in longer flights. However, when everyone is required to wear a respirator, there’s a good chance that even someone adjacent to an infected individual won’t catch COVID-19.
Of course, this is not considering other factors such as contaminated surfaces. It also assumes that everyone in the plane is wearing their respirator at all times and that it is always covering their mouth and nose. If you are travelling soon, make sure to keep your respirator fitted at all times.
Now that the importance of wearing masks and respirators during flight has been discussed, let’s look at some of the current mask restrictions worldwide. First, it is worth noting that FFP2, N95, KN95, and KF94 respirators are (almost) equivalent devices certified by different bodies. Therefore, where an FFP2 requirement is mentioned, an N95 is likely also accepted.
As of the time of writing - and please note that these are subject to change at any time - there is a range of airlines worldwide that require masks while travelling. We recommend investigating the airline or local government rules before boarding any flight to be sure.
If you are based in the U.S or taking a flight on a U.S airline, you must don a face mask both at the airport and on the flight. This requirement is set to expire on January 18th, but TSA will likely extend the mandate in the face of Omicron.
Currently, the TSA has set no requirement on the type of masks required - only that some form of medical-grade mask or better is essential. However, as demonstrated above, it’s highly recommended that you wear an N95 or other certified filtration device. This is especially true now that the mask shortage is over and respirators are far more easily obtainable.
Some airlines have restrictions on bandanas, scarf masks, ski masks, and masks with vents, slits, valves, or other holes (1). However, provided that you have a surgical mask or respirator without valves, you should be set as U.S airline rules are pretty lenient on the type of masks allowed.
Exemptions are not made for vaccinated individuals or children. Once a child is over two, they must be donning a mask for the flight duration. For infants under two, there is an automatic exemption.
When travelling in the EU or Europe, rules tend to be far stricter. While it depends on the airline in question, many big carriers have enforced respirators of FFP2 quality or better. These carriers include Austrian Airlines, Air France, Croatia Airlines, Czech Airlines, Finnair, Lufthansa, and Swissair (2).
Further, many other airlines worldwide require passengers to don masks or respirators during their flights. While we can’t list every carrier here, we recommend checking with the airline themselves before your flight. Further, you should check the local government website as masks may be required as soon as you land.
While surgical and cloth masks are enough for many carriers, we highly recommend that you stick to medical-grade masks and respirators. During the mask shortages, surgical and cloth masks were a good stopgap for COVID-19 protection. However, these shortages have since ended, and it’s easy to obtain respirators - just make sure that they are authentic.
The best piece of broad advice that we can give is to don a respirator whenever flying. Both cloth masks and surgical masks (even medical-grade masks) are banned on some airlines but allowed on others. However, every airline accepts N95, FFP2, KN95 and equivalent devices. As such, wearing one of these will give you the best protection and the least issues while travelling.
What Is a Medical-Grade Mask?
In this article and the terminology airlines and governments use, you will often hear 'medical-grade mask'. However, this is a very broad term and allows for a wide range of masks.
Technically, medical-grade masks are anything above a surgical or procedural mask that can be used by doctors, nurses, and other professionals in the medical industry. These typically have three ASTM standards: level 1, level 2 and level 3.
These levels represent the splashes that each mask is designed to resist within a medical situation. Therefore, any surgical mask that has obtained one of these levels is designated a medical mask. However, respirators also perform significantly better, especially in the context of COVID-19.
This is where it becomes confusing. In the medical context, medical-grade devices are particular, certified devices designed solely for medical use. Therefore, N95 or FFP2 respirators are not inherently 'medical' devices. Instead, there are specific N95 respirators intended for this purpose.
However, the term medical-grade now refers to ASTM-rated surgical masks and better. Any FFR (filtering facepiece respirator) certified with 94% filtration or higher is considered a higher grade - hence, they are accepted as medical-grade.
Therefore, the medical-grade requirement includes FPP2, KN95, KF94, N95, P2, or DL2 certified respirators. These standards indicate that a device can filter over 94% of particles, and these devices are far superior to medical-grade surgical masks when it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The Light SE and Pocket masks from AirPop have obtained the KN95 certification and many local standards. Both devices show filtration above 98% and are very breathable, even during long-haul flights.
At this point, perhaps the better question to ask is this: what exactly does the medical-grade mask requirement restrict? What masks is this requirement preventing if both surgical masks and respirators are accepted? The answer is cloth masks, bandanas, scarves, and other similarly low-filtration protection.
While wearing cloth masks was heavily encouraged during the start of the pandemic, this was when certified masks and respirators were in incredibly high demand, and there were global shortages. Now, the shortage is over, and it's time to move to more effective devices.
However, while respirators and surgical masks are generally accepted on flights (with some exceptions where only respirators are accepted), some restrictions need to be considered.
While the exact restrictions vary between airlines and localities, it's better to don a device that meets all requirements. It can prevent a lot of potential hassle further down the line!
The restriction that you will hear about most often is valved masks. Valves are added to a range of respirators to reduce exhalation resistance and increase the comfort for the wearer by reducing humidity within the device.
The issue is that while valves can make a mask more comfortable, they also only offer one-way filtration. This means that the devices protect only the wearer. In the case of COVID-19, two-way filtration is crucial as it dramatically reduces the chances of transmission.
Devices with valves are restricted in many countries worldwide and are not designed to be used for viral protection. As such, make sure that you are using valveless masks when travelling by air in 2022.
Anything less than a respirator will also be restricted depending on where you are going. While the U.S currently accepts a range of masks, many European airlines accept only certified respirators. For this reason, it's better to have a certified respirator on hand to prevent any potential issues.
Choosing a Mask For Flying
AirPop's Light SE is a great choice for flying.
There are three pillars for masks and respirators - filtration, fit, and comfort. Achieving good results in all three categories is a tricky balancing act. For example, while it's easy to increase filtration, this comes at the cost of comfort as breathing resistance increases.
This balance is extremely important for flying, especially for longer flights. While the discomfort of wearing an N95 respirator is often acceptable on flights that are only a couple of hours in length, this discomfort can often result in pain over longer flights. No one wants to be even more uncomfortable on a flight!
The first pillar, filtration, is essential for obvious reasons. The filtration capabilities of a mask or respirator are often expressed in the percentage of particles that the device's filter is capable of removing from the air. More often than not, these numbers will be between 95% and 99.9%.
If a device has a filtration percentage less than 95%, it's likely worth avoiding. While there are times for lower filtration devices, it's best to have the highest filtration possible when on a plane. Why? Because you will be stuck near a large number of people. If there is ever a time when you need a reliable device, it's when you're stuck on a plane for hours.
The biggest downside to higher filtration masks and respirators is that they often have higher breathing resistance and are less comfortable than lower filtration devices. However, while that is generally true, there have been many technological advancements in the field of filtration that now allow for high filtration devices to have fantastic breathability.
There is a caveat here. While many high filtration masks have excellent breathability, many masks are the opposite. This is especially true in disposable masks, where most products are manufactured cheaply and therefore with lower-quality materials.
While some highly breathable disposable masks are on the market, reusable masks tend to have better breathability. This is due to extensive research that goes into producing these masks and the inherently higher pricing (although reusable masks do come out cheaper in the long-run).
On top of breathability, you will also want to consider other comfort aspects - these are especially important for long-haul flights! Firstly, how comfortable are the mask's ear loops or head straps? It's common for wearers to experience pain behind their ears after extended periods of wear.
While thicker ear loops can prove more comfortable, ear loops are typically not as comfortable as headbands. If you have a mask that uses headbands, great! If not, consider purchasing a cheap headband that can connect to your mask. This will remove the pressure behind your ears and make the whole flying experience significantly more comfortable.
Ideally, a mask that isn't too thick is also ideal. Thicker masks tend to retain more heat and can cause discomfort over long periods of wear. While this is usually a relatively minor issue compared to ear pain, it's something worth considering.
Fit is also vital because an incorrectly fitting mask will not provide the advertised protection. As such, when it comes to flying, filtration, fit, and comfort are all equally important. These factors should all be considered when deciding what mask to wear on your upcoming trip.
Unfortunately, it's hard to judge the fit of a device before trying it yourself. Everyone's face is different, and some masks fit certain face types better than others. With that being said, we discuss how you can judge the fit of a mask just by the appearance in this article.
Achieving these three pillars may seem impossible - there's a lot to balance, and some of these factors are often inversely related.
Luckily, some devices can strike this balance. The Light SE is one such mask. AirPop created this mask from the ground up to be effective, comfortable and well-fitting. For this reason, we chose to adopt an interior silicone seal rather than rely on an often ill-fitting wire nosepiece.
This also leads to the mask being very light and wearable for hours. Perhaps even more comfortable is the AirPop Pocket, a similarly designed mask that instead uses a memory foam seal to prevent leaks around the nose.
Conclusion - Best Masks for Flying
With masks being essential items for the foreseeable future, it’s worth finding and investing in a device capable of protecting you while remaining comfortable. This is especially relevant when it comes to taking flights in the era of COVID-19.
While some airlines require only medical-grade masks, we recommend that you wear a certified respirator instead. Recent research shows that surgical masks are far better than no masks. However, respirators are significantly better than surgical masks and something that every traveller should be donning.
It’s also worth getting a high-quality mask as it will prevent travel issues that you may encounter otherwise. While a surgical mask is accepted on many U.S carriers, these masks are not allowed in much of Europe. As such, it’s better to get a respirator or certified device that meets all of the requirements.
If you’re looking for a mask that balances filtration, fit and comfort, make sure to check out AirPop’s Light SE and Pocket masks. Both of these devices have been extensively tested and proven to provide a comfortable fit while not sacrificing performance.