Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin will now force all passengers on flights to and from NSW to wear masks from today.
The move follows state Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s decision to mandate face coverings in Greater Sydney on public transport.
However, on Monday morning, there was confusion as to whether this technically included flying, with NSW’s Department of Health unable to confirm to Australian Aviation whether passengers could be liable for the $200 penalty in the air or at the airport.
The increased restrictions come after Sydney has faced a small resurgence of coronavirus cases over the Christmas period, after months of minimal numbers.
Now, face-coverings will be required to be worn in Greater Sydney, Wollongong and the Central Coast in shopping centres and supermarkets; indoor entertainment such as cinemas and theatres; on public transport, and in waiting areas.
Announcing the restrictions, Premier Berejiklian said she made the move to “give confidence to business and people holding down jobs that you can continue about your activity in NSW so long as you wear a mask in those indoor settings where there is a higher risk of transmission”.
On Monday morning, however, there was confusion as to how the rules affected flying, with NSW Health unable to confirm if “public transport” included flying and, if so, whether those restrictions applied to all of NSW or just the three chosen areas. The distinction is significant because those breaking the rules face a $200 fine.
Qantas and Virgin acted regardless, and will now ask all passengers to wear a covering or be denied boarding unless an exemption applies.
Currently, Qantas provides each customer with a complimentary face mask at the gate, within its “Fly Well” packs.
In areas not covered by the law change, the airline’s policy is that it simply “strongly recommends” face coverings being worn.
Customers are also handed wipes to wipe down seat belts, trays and armrests if preferred and there is also sequenced boarding and disembarkation to minimise crowding.
Earlier in the pandemic, it kept the middle seat free for domestic flights – though this policy was later reversed.
Virgin Australia updated its policy in July to “actively encourage” passengers to wear masks nationwide and hand them out prior to boarding.
This contrasts with Rex, which has forced all passengers to both wear and bring their own masks from 19 May 2020.
Passengers must wear masks at Rex check-in counters (or worn immediately after purchasing from a check-in counter), at boarding gates, during tarmac transfer both at boarding and disembarkation (including during bus transfers), and while on-board the aircraft.
Internationally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said it supports the wearing of masks for passengers, but not social distancing.
Customers flying to and from Melbourne have been required to wear face coverings since 23 July in line with local restrictions there.
IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac has previously pointed to dramatic cost increases to air travel that would likely come about as a result of such a policy.
“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount. The aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely. Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is low,” said de Juniac.
“And we will take measures — such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew — to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit.”