During a Senate hearing on Wednesday, Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly told lawmakers that face masks don’t provide significant additional protection from COVID-19 on airplanes because high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters are doing the hard yards in removing viruses from cabin air and protecting passengers.
Kelly, who is due to retire on February 1, 2022, after 17 years as Southwest CEO, has previously called for the Biden administration’s face mask mandate to be lifted for fully vaccinated passengers.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin,” Kelly told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “The environment is very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor settings,” he continued.
Since the very start of the pandemic, the airline industry has maintained that passenger airplanes are far safer than other indoor settings because of the unique way that air is supplied. Along with hospital-grade HEPA filters, the International Air Transporation Association (IATA) says the top to bottom airflow built into modern jets also helps to limit the spread of viruses and other particles.
Even so, IATA still advocates for universal masking aboard passenger planes and several Nordic countries that dropped masking rules a few months ago have since reintroduced face mask requirements aboard airplanes as winter infection rates surge.
Multiple studies have suggested that it is possible to catch COVID-19 from infected passengers even with face mask rules in place. Other studies that have backed up the safety airplane cabins, including one sponsored by United Airlines, worked on the assumption of universal masking.
Nonetheless, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker seemingly agreed with Kelly’s opinion on face masks, although a spokesperson later clarified that Parker was referring only to the quality of airplane air and not to the continuing need for passengers to wear face masks.
The Committee hearing, titled ‘Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry’ was originally called to examine how airlines had spent $54 billion in payroll support. Kelly and Parker faced a grilling over high-profile operational meltdowns at Southwest and American Airlines over the summer, which they blamed on worker shortages.
Lawmakers wanted to examine whether the money provided by taxpayers had been spent wisely, although the Committee also explored other issues like baggage fees, refund policies, consumer protection and COVID-19 rules.
In July, Kelly said Southwest Airlines wouldn’t advocate for the extension of the federal face mask mandate for public transportation but these comments were made before the Delta wave washed across the United States.
President Biden recently approved the extension of the mandate through March 18, 2022. The Omicron variant is expected to drive a significant uptick in new infections over the next few months.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.