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Southwest CEO Gary Kelly tests positive for COVID-19 after unmasked Senate hearing

Dec. 17, 2021
3 min read
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly tests positive for COVID-19 after unmasked Senate hearing
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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday, two days after appearing unmasked at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing with executives from other airlines.

The positive test was first reported by Reuters.

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Kelly first began informing close contacts of his positive test result on Thursday, a source familiar with the matter told TPG on Friday. Southwest disclosed the positive test after being approached by Reuters on Friday.

Kelly's symptoms were mild, a spokesperson for Southwest said.

"Although testing negative multiple times prior to the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing, Gary tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home, experiencing mild symptoms, and taking a PCR test," the Southwest spokesperson said in the statement. "Gary is doing well and currently resting at home, he has been fully vaccinated and received the booster earlier this year."

The spokesperson confirmed that Kelly's positive test result came on Thursday.

Kelly appeared unmasked at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday sitting between American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, who were also unmasked. Delta chief operating officer John Laughter and Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson were also at the table with Kelly.

Kelly's appearance drew scrutiny following the hearing after he seemed to question the value of the federal mask mandate in public transportation settings, including in airports and on board commercial aircraft.

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

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker appeared to agree with Kelly initially, but later clarified that he was only agreeing that cabin air is clean, emphatically stating that he supported the mask mandate.

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.”

In a statement on Thursday following the hearing, Southwest said that it would continue to abide by the mandate.

“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.

Southwest did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Friday following reports of Kelly's positive test.

United CEO Scott Kirby tested negative on Friday, according to a person at United Airlines familiar with the situation.

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

A spokesperson for Delta confirmed that Laughter tested negative on Friday. Nelson said in a statement that she planned to follow CDC guidance and test repeatedly over the next several days, while a spokesperson for American Airlines did not immediately return a request for comment.

"Get vaxxed, wear a mask, and be kind," Nelson added. "My dear friend is in the ER for days with her husband waiting on emergency surgery while in extreme pain, but there are no hospital beds and no way to get him the treatment he needs. This is not freedom. Only solidarity will get us there."

Featured image by Doug Parker, chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines Group Inc., Gary Kelly, chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines Co., Scott Kirby, president of United Airlines Holdings Inc. testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on December 15, 2021. (Photo by Tom Brenner / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOM BRENNER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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