Passengers passing through Heathrow will no longer be required to wear a face covering from March 16.
Although the airport is moving away from a mandate, it will “strongly encourage” those at the airport to continue wearing a face covering, particularly when coming into close contact with others, in recognition that the pandemic is not over.
It said the change mirrors steps taken by other transport organisations in the UK and applies across all of Heathrow’s terminals, bus and railway stations and office spaces.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic welcomed the move, signalling that they were preparing to follow suit by dropping the face covering requirement onboard their aircraft as soon as regulatory requirements for their destinations allow.
Virgin Atlantic will allow passengers and crew to travel without masks on Caribbean flights, also from today.
Instead, passengers and crew on flights to Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, Grenada, the Bahamas, Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago can “make a personal choice”.
But it warned that passengers may be asked to wear a mask when boarding or disembarking flights, according to country or airport regulations.
British Airways said it will also only require passengers to wear face coverings from today if the destination they’re flying to requires it. It has not yet confirmed which routes this applies to.
Heathrow said it passengers should check on-board face covering requirements with their airline before travelling.
It accepted that some passengers may feel vulnerable so will be encouraging colleagues to “be respectful and put on a face covering when near a passenger who requests it”.
Heathrow Chief Operating Officer, Emma Gilthorpe, said: “We have worked hard to keep our passengers and colleagues safe during the pandemic. We acted quickly to institute face coverings as one of our first lines of defence, and we’re pleased that we’re now able to move away from a mandatory requirement as society learns to live with Covid longer term.
“While we still recommend wearing them, we can be confident the investments we’ve made in Covid-secure measures – some of which aren’t always visible – combined with the fantastic protection provided by the vaccine will continue to keep people safe while travelling.”
Corneel Koster, Chief Customer & Operating Officer Virgin Atlantic, said: “Throughout the pandemic we’ve reviewed our Covid-19 measures, with the health and safety of our customers and people remaining Virgin Atlantic’s number one priority.
“As we learn to live with Covid and with the legal requirement to wear a face mask now removed in England, we believe our customers should have the personal choice whether to wear a mask onboard, on routes where international regulations around mask-wearing do not apply.
“This policy will be introduced gradually, beginning with our Caribbean services from Heathrow and Manchester airports and we encourage everyone to be respectful of fellow passengers’ mask preferences.
“Across our network, we continue to adhere to all regulatory requirements both in the UK and in destination countries, recognising that mask requirements differ by market. Masks will still be required on many of our routes, including flights operating to or from the United States until 18 April at the earliest.”
Jason Mahoney, British Airways Chief Operating Officer, said: “We welcome this as a really positive step forward. As an international airline we fly to a large number of countries around the world, all of which have their own local restrictions and legal requirements.
“We’re working through these and from Wednesday March 16, customers will only be required to wear a face covering on board our flights if the destination they’re travelling to requires it. For destinations where the wearing of a face covering is not mandated, our customers are able to make a personal choice, and we kindly request everyone respects each other’s preferences.”
London City Airport has also relaxed its policy. A spokesman said: “While passengers are no longer required to wear a face mask in the terminal, we recommend passengers check with their airline for their conditions of carriage regarding face coverings and their destination country’s entry requirements.”
London Gatwick and Manchester Airport said they are currently reviewing their policies.