Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told a U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday that “masks do not add much, if anything” to combat the spread of COVID-19 on aircraft, and questioned the rationale behind mask mandates on flights imposed on both of airlines and the Biden administration.
Kelly made the comment during a hearing on the airline’s oversight of the Senate Committee on Trade, Science and Transportation, and other industry executives joined him, emphasizing that commercial air filtration systems make them the safest indoor space available.
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Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Asked CEOs about air quality on airplanes while asking the question, “Do you think we will ever be able to get on a plane without masks?”
Speaking to discussions about air quality, Kelly said: “The statistic I remember is that 99.97% of airborne pathogens are captured by [high efficiency particulate air] filtration system, and it is turned every two or three minutes. “
“I think the issue is very strong that masks do not add much, if anything, to the cabin environment,” Kelly said. “It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor environment.”
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Wicker then asked for a response from American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, who replied, “I agree. The plane is the safest place you can be – it applies to all our planes. They have all these HEPA filters and the same airflow.”
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told Wicker that actual air quality on planes is “safer, in fact, than an intensive care unit,” adding that “being next to someone on a plane – sitting next to them – is the same as to be 15 feet away from them in a typical building. “
However, most places in the United States no longer require masks indoors, except for certain Democratic-controlled jurisdictions and areas under federal supervision.
Airlines introduced mask requirements on their own in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, and several welcomed President Biden’s federal mandate to wear masks on commercial flights after he took office. The federal rule was due to expire in September, but the Transportation Security Administration extended it to January 18.
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The mask demands have caused major headaches for the airlines in the way of compliance, with mask breaks being the main reason for a sharp increase in unruly behavior from passengers. In response, the FAA has raised fines for violations of pilots disrupting flights and urged airlines to “take more action” on unregulated passenger incidents.
Airlines have not publicly pushed back against the mandate.
Asked by FOX Business for further explanation of Kelly’s comments, Southwest said in a statement, “Southwest Airlines continues to adhere to the federal mask mandate for customers and employees both in the airport environment and on board all Southwest aircraft.”