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Lawyer: Yes, Finnair can bar passengers without masks from flying

A consumer rights lawyer says clear rules are needed on making it mandatory to use protective masks.

Suu- ja nenäsuojainta käyttävä matkustaja Helsinki-Vantaan lentokentällä.
A passenger wearing a protective mask at Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Image: Markku Ulander / Lehtikuva

Since national flag carrier Finnair announced that it would require passengers to wear masks on flights from mid-May, questions have arisen about whether or not it has the right to enforce the rule. The answer is, yes it does, according to Tuula Sario, a lawyer specialising in consumer rights.

Finnair is reportedly the first company in Finland to require customers to wear a protective covering over their noses and mouths because of the coronavirus pandemic. The airline has said that the rule will be in place until the end of August

"The company is responsible for ensuring that it is safe to use its services. So it can also require [customers] to use safety equipment," Sario said.

Satu Toepfer, team manager with the Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority (FCCA) said she held a similar view. She added that compulsory mask use can be introduced for health reasons under certain conditions.

"In this case, protective masks should be available reasonably easily and at an affordable price. [The need for] mask usage should also be clearly communicated to passengers," Toepfer continued.

In a release issued on 18 May, Finnair said, "Customers will board the flight with their own mask and wear it throughout the flight," and continued, "We recommend that customers acquire a mask that fits them already before their flight."

However Sario suggested that greater clarity might be needed on what constitutes a mask.

"It could perhaps be a shirt that you raise until it covers the area below the eyes? To me this is the big problem: should it be a separate mask or headgear with a visor, or should it be something else?" she asked.

Can passengers without masks be left behind?

According to Sario, Finnair can mandate the use of masks during its flights. But what about flights that were purchased before it informed passengers about the compulsory use of the face coverings? And can passengers be deplaned if they refuse to wear one?

"In these cases [the airline] should be able to take a stand on whether or not the use of masks is essential from a health perspective. The coronavirus situation is new and there are no precedents for it," Toepfer said.

What should be done in cases where a passenger cannot wear a mask due to illness?

"They should be able to cancel the flight and should get a refund," Toepfer said, adding that it is likely that disputes will arise over the situation.

"The intention behind the mask rule is good. This measure aims to increase the safety and reliability of air travel. It is not completely cut and dry, rules are needed," she said.

No compulsory masks for VR or stores - yet

So far, national rail services provider VR has not announced any plans to require commuters to use masks. Nor has it recommended that they do so.

Retailers have also not discussed the issue, according to the Finnish Commerce Federation and the Finnish Grocery Trade Association (PTY).

"At the moment there isn’t even a recommendation on the horizon for customers to wear masks. At least not before official guidelines change," the federation’s safety specialist Laura Kulonen said, referring to Finland’s official stance that masks are not required in public.

Kulonen noted that unlike Finnair, retailers cannot oblige customers to use masks. Kari Luoto of the grocery trade lobby group agreed with Kulonen’s assessment.

"Grocery stores do not have the same environments as airplanes. For example, there have been few [Covid-19] infections among our staff, and they have mostly come from family members or elsewhere," he said.

Finland’s Ministry for Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) has not issued any general advisory for the public to use protective masks. It has said that it will decide on its position once a report on their use has been completed.

Meanwhile, firms are also waiting for the report and whether or not it will recommend the widespread use of nose and mouth coverings.

According to PTY’s Luoto and the commerce federation’s Kulonen, the scarcity of protective gear has been one reason why retailers have not discussed masks with employees or customers.

"As a responsible player, retailers do not want to begin competing with the health care sector for masks," said Kulonen.

However now that supply problems have eased and domestic retail chains such as Kesko have announced that they will be offering masks for sale, the situation is very different, they noted. Luoto speculated that mask usage in stores will become a talking point.

There are also business considerations involved in the mask issue. Store owners worry they could scare off customers. On the other hand, it could be one way to reassure shoppers that it is safe to do business.

Of course, the question of whether or not masks should be widely used is also a bone of contention in other countries -- not just in Finland.

According to information gathered by Yle in early May, governments in more than 50 countries had advised people to wear masks. Meanwhile the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) has said that fabric masks can reduce the spread of the virus.

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