Face masks and no duty free: EU issues coronavirus air safety guidelines

Air travellers will have to wear face masks throughout all stages of their journey, they could be assessed in interview booths if they show signs of Covid-19, and will need to say goodbye to loved ones outside the airport, according to guidelines issued by the EU’s air safety body.

Instructions issued to airports and airlines also include: restrictions on hand luggage, reserving an on-board toilet for cabin crew and no onboard duty free or food trolleys.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published 28-pages of guidelines that will radically alter the experience of flying, including physical distancing measures that Heathrow’s chief executive has previously said would be impossible to implement. The UK has had no role in shaping EASA policy since the official Brexit date of 31 January but remains a member until the end of the year.

Airlines and airports are likely to adopt many of the guidelines, which cover every stage of the air travel process.

Arrival and check-in

Anyone who develops symptoms after booking, or has been in contact with someone suffering from Covid-19, should not turn up to the flight.

Passengers should not expect a lingering goodbye with loved ones at the terminal. With few exceptions, nobody who is not travelling or working there will be allowed inside.

Those travelling are expected to take precautions such as washing hands and wearing masks, with exceptions for children under six and people with a medical reason not to. Regular reminders will be broadcast through the public address system, alongside the usual security messages and flight information.

EASA also recommends “respiratory etiquette”, such as covering the face when sneezing. Those who do not comply could be ejected from the airport and suffer further penalties from local authorities.

Physical distancing is defined as 1.5m, rather than the 2 metre gap Britons have been told to maintain. As in many shops and offices, there will be floor markings to show people where to stand in queues.

However, physical distancing is unlikely to be feasible in many airports and the EASA guidelines state that if the 1.5m rule is not possible, the airport should implement additional measures such as hand hygiene. John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow chief executive, said physical distancing at a boarding gate would mean a queue of 1km for a jumbo jet.

EASA said airport operators should set up interview booths for people found to have a temperature of more than 38C to assess possible illness.

However, it also admits that temperature screening is not considered particularly effective at spotting Covid-19 and is more intended to “dissuade ill persons from travelling by air and enhance public confidence”. Nonetheless, Heathrow airport last week rolled out temperature screening, using camera detection systems to monitor multiple people at a time for signs of fever.

Airport staff will need to wear face masks and hand them out to passengers not sporting their own. Protective perspex barriers are also likely to become a feature of check-in desks and security areas, under the guidelines. Heathrow has said it is installing 600 hand sanitiser stations, putting up signage featuring government health advice and even looking at using UV light to sanitise surfaces.


As with the terminal, physical distancing will not always be possible in the security area. All staff will be wearing masks but security employees performing body checks may also be wearing face shields. Security screening trays will be much more frequently disinfected. Heathrow is also testing contact free security screening equipment.

Boarding and disembarking

Hand luggage restrictions could be even stricter. EASA recommends cutting down on cabin bags to speed up boarding and reduce contamination risk. It recommends airlines incentivise customers to do this, so there may be discounts on hold luggage charges.

Passengers should be spaced apart if possible while boarding and disembarking and where buses are used, more should be provided. There may be an automated disinfectant dispenser at the aircraft door and a mat soaked with disinfectant to walk on.

On board

The aircraft should be thoroughly disinfected between flights, so trays are likely to be less grubby at least. EASA has asked airlines to install better air filters to clean the air in the cabin but everyone, passengers and crew, will be expected to wear masks. EASA recommends discarding them after four hours, meaning several may be needed for long-haul flights.

Airlines have toyed with the idea of blocking off the middle seat to keep passengers further apart but whether this is mandatory will depend on where you are flying. Europe and the US do not require it, but Malaysia and Indonesia do.

Using the toilet will be more difficult, with airlines advised to reserve one for cabin crew and prevent passengers queuing in the aisles where possible.

The short-haul airline easyJet says there will be no food service on board its planes, at least initially. EASA has recommended “reduced” food and drink services and no duty free sales onboard.

EASA recommends strict protocols if someone falls ill on board with Covid-19 symptoms. Two rows of seats in every direction should be cleared and anyone who was sitting in them could be interviewed by public health authorities when they land. Their travelling companions will also be isolated.

The ill passenger should be given their own toilet and be seated at the back right, near the outflow valve through which dirty air is dumped. The air nozzle above their seat should be turned off to reduce droplet spread and only crew members who have already interacted with them should continue to do so.

Arrival and baggage claim

Thermal screening may be applied at the arrival airport and airlines should provide public health authorities with a “passenger locator card” if requested for contact tracing purposes. This will give a passenger’s name, allocated seat and phone number or email.

Governments have been asked to simplify border control processes, such as by using facial recognition. Immigration halls may have to be redesigned to ease passenger flow and border control agents will be trained to spot signs of illness.

After collecting baggage, passengers will be told to leave the airport as soon as possible. Meet and greet will not be allowed for the most part. Where it cannot be avoided, a special area will be set up away from other arrivals.

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