Mask mandates questioned during Capitol Hill hearing, but — in the end — airline CEOs hold the line

Dec 16, 2021

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The CEOs of American Airlines and Southwest on Wednesday questioned the need for continuing mask mandates on flights, suggesting that flying maskless is safe.

“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Southwest chief Gary Kelly said. “It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

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Both executives’ comments came during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Payroll Support Program aid that major airlines received.

“I concur; an aircraft is the safest place you can be,” Parker said. “It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.”

Delta CEO Ed Bastian, speaking with CNBC on Thursday, took a different tone than his Texas-based counterparts, saying he still supports the mask mandate.

“I don’t know that I agree with Gary’s remarks, particularly as we see omicron continue to enter into our country,” Bastian said during an interview. “Masks are going to be important as a safeguard for a while yet.”

American and Southwest also moved Thursday to qualify the comments made by their CEOs.

American clarified that Parker was agreeing about the air quality aboard aircraft and “did not intend to cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes.”

Southwest also issued a statement describing the air recirculation and filtration as “creating a protective environment prior to the added layer of wearing a mask.”

“Southwest Airlines continues to abide by the federal mask mandate for customers and employees both within the airport environment and onboard all Southwest aircraft,” the statement said.

Airlines have touted frequent air circulation through high-efficiency air particulate (HEPA) filters as significantly reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission aboard most large commercial airplanes. While some case studies have shown that transmission is possible, other models and studies, including one conducted by United, Boeing and the Department of Defense, found the risk to be minimal.

The federal mask mandate was extended through March 2022 following the discovery of the omicron variant. It was originally set to expire in September of this year, but was subsequently extended through January 2022 as the Delta variant began to take hold in the U.S.

The mask mandate has been a source of controversy as travel demand has recovered, with confrontations over masks cited as one of the causes of a spike in unruly passengers aboard commercial flights. The current debate comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge across the United States.

While the mandates were initially lauded as a way to restore consumer confidence in air travel, and a way to empower flight attendants and bring uniformity to disparate policies between different airlines, they have become a greater cause of contention in recent months.

More than half of passengers were opposed to continuing mandatory wearing of masks aboard aircraft in a recent survey conducted by Southwest, CEO Gary Kelly told TPG during an interview earlier this month.

Regardless, the new variant, which early data suggest is more contagious and immune evasive than the delta variant, means that the mandate will likely stay in place, according to Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and head of Atmosphere Research.

“Even though airline passengers do tend to have an above-average rate of vaccination, at least the adults, you still have a critical mass of airline passengers that are not vaccinated,” Harteveldt told TPG. “Airlines simply can’t reduce their vigilance in keeping passengers safe.”

The concept of boosting consumer confidence is especially important as the new variant spreads, Harteveldt added.

“Various studies show that the air on a commercial aircraft is very clean thanks to the HEPA filters and the constant state of recirculation of fresh air,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re at a point yet where the mandate can be lifted, unfortunately.”

“Those comments were not helpful at all,” Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, told CNN on Thursday. “Gary Kelly came over to me after the hearing and said that our layered approach to safety and security is what’s necessary to keep people safe on the planes.”

Read more: Is Canada next? Retiring Southwest CEO Gary Kelly discusses carrier’s future

“I want to be very clear that the airline industry from the very beginning has worked with us to put mask policies in place even before the federal government put that in place, and they continue to support that,” Nelson added.

Nelson noted that both Kelly and Parker generally support the mandate, and criticized mixed messaging for confusing passengers and making enforcement more difficult for flight attendants.

“The biggest problem for flight attendants is that when there’s inconsistency in communication, that puts us in harm’s way.”

Featured photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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