Airline CEO who questioned effectiveness of masks on flights tests positive for COVID

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Southwest Airlines boss Gary Kelly has tested positive for COVID-19 a few days after appearing before a Senate panel where he questioned the need for continued masking aboard flights, according to a spokesperson who confirmed the result to Reuters.

Kelly appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday along with the CEOs of American Airlines and United Airlines, as well as a senior Delta Air Lines executive and a flight attendants union chief. The New York Post added that those airlines did not immediately comment on whether their bosses had been tested for the virus.

Southwest confirmed the positive test for Kelly after Reuters was tipped off by other officials. During portions of the hearing, Kelly did not wear a mask while he questioned the benefits of masks aboard flights mostly because aircraft air filtration systems are superior.

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

(Video: CBSDFW)

The CEO was responding to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the committee’s ranking member, who asked the airline bosses about the quality of air aboard commercial aircraft: “Will we ever be able, do you think, to get on an airplane without masks?”

“The statistics I recall is that 99.97% of airborne pathogens are captured by the [high-efficiency particulate air] filtering system, and it’s turned over every two or three minutes,” Kelly noted.

Wicker then put the same question to Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines, who responded: “I concur. The aircraft is the safest place you can be – it’s true of all of our aircraft. They all have these HEPA filters and the same airflow.”

United Airlines boss Scott Kirby told Wicker that the air quality on commercial planes is “safer, actually, than an intensive care unit” before going on to note that “being next to someone on an airplane – sitting next to them – is the equivalent of being 15 feet away from them in a typical building.”

Airlines independently moved to impose mask mandates aboard flights in early 2020 just as the coronavirus pandemic began to rapidly spread. Also, many of them welcomed President Biden’s federal mask mandate aboard flights after he took office in January. The mandate was set to expire in January, however, it was extended through Jan. 18 by the Transportation Security Administration.

Following Kelly’s remarks, Fox Business asked for clarification, leading the airline to issue a boilerplate response: “Southwest Airlines continues to abide by the federal mask mandate for customers and employees both within the airport environment and onboard all Southwest aircraft.”

Mask requirements have been problematic for airlines as well, leading to several confrontations between angry passengers and air crew.

Jon Dougherty


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