Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is winding back the rules on wearing face masks for some of its premium cabin passengers. Those passengers lucky enough to enjoy the lie-flat beds of long-haul business class and first class are now allowed to take off their face masks when the bed is down.

Unless lying down, face masks stay on

Reporting in Executive Traveller on Monday, David Flynn cites an internal Cathay Pacific giving the green light to premium cabin passengers removing their face masks when lying down. According to the airline, the partitions around the premium seats help contain any threat of COVID-19 infection. Passenger density and personal space are also much better in the premium cabins than down the back of the plane. This further reduces the risk of infection.

Except for this new clause, Cathay Pacific requires its passengers, regardless of travel class, to wear a face mask while on one of their planes.

“While the risk of transmission onboard remains very low, we have implemented measures to safeguard the wellbeing of our passengers and crew,” the airline says.

“To protect the wellbeing of all passengers and our crew onboard, if you are two years of age or older, you must wear a face mask when traveling with us.”

This includes the check-in process, in Cathay Pacific lounges, during boarding, onboard the plane, during disembarkation, and the catch-all “when directed by our airport team or cabin crew.” Except for lying down, Cathay Pacific says face masks should only come off for eating and drinking and if the oxygen masks deploy.

An interesting decision by Cathay Pacific

The face mask exemption for premium cabin passengers is an interesting move by Cathay Pacific. HEPA filters in the air conditioning units of modern airliners do an excellent job of filtering out viruses like COVID-19. But the highly infectious bug is no respecter of travel class or how much you paid for your ticket.

Adding some complexity is the fact that residents of Asian cities like Hong Kong are pretty conditioned to wearing face masks. They’ve previously experienced epidemics like SARS and bird flu. With the homegrown market generally so attuned to wearing face masks, there’s speculation the new policy is a response by the airline to westerners traveling on Cathay Pacific and not liking the face mask rule. In essence, a grab for market share.

Inflight mask-wearing divides many passengers

Scrolling through online forums, there is a lot of divided opinion on the pros and cons, necessity or not, it wearing face masks in flight. Some people see it as an affront to their rights. Others see it as simple common sense. Wherever you sit on that argument, whether flying long-haul or short-haul, most airlines now mandate it.

“We’re unable to accept anyone not wearing a face covering for travel,” says Cathay Pacific.

When not in a lie-flat position, Cathay Pacific continues to require its premium cabin passengers to wear a face mask. The amount of people this new rule impacts is also minimal. Last year, passenger numbers across the Cathay Pacific network were down 86.9% on 2019 levels. The bulk of those people were in economy class where there is no lying down and face masks stay on.

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