The head of the nation’s largest flight attendants union says Southwest CEO Gary Kelly has assured her that he supports a federal mask mandate for airline passengers, despite his comments at a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday casting doubts on whether face coverings increase COVID-19 protection on planes.
“And Gary Kelly, after the hearing, came over and said that he was absolutely with me on the masks and that I should not take that any other way,” union chief Sara Nelson told CNBC. “It’s really important that the public hear that everyone is on the same page with this. Flight attendants run into trouble when communication is not clear and not consistent.”
Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, made the comments during an appearance on CNBC’s The Exchange program Thursday afternoon, as she tried to clarify the seemingly contradictory statement by Kelly, the departing CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.
Nelson’s union does not represent the 13,100 Southwest Airlines flight attendants. TWU 556, which does represent Southwest flight attendants, did not respond to a request for comment.
Southwest’s CEO made his comments about face masks during a Senate hearing Wednesday after explaining that air filtration systems in commercial airplanes make the environment safe against the spread of COVID-19.
Kelly and Southwest have been supportive of mask mandates throughout the last 11 months and had even required passengers to wear masks months before the Biden Administration issued an executive order on the subject.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Kelly said Wednesday in Washington, D.C. “It is very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”
Industry-funded studies from institutions such as Harvard and the U.S. Department of Defense have shown that airplane cabin filtration systems filter out most COVID-19 germs, but other studies have also backed up the effectiveness of wearing face masks while traveling.
Baylor College of Medicine professor Peter Hotez told CNN on Thursday that “the data supports the use of masks.”
“Why say this now when we have the most transmissible variant of all accelerating? I don’t know,” said Hotez. “Some of these CEOs have the emotional intelligence of a doorknob. I’m not sure why they would say that kind of thing.”
When asked for a comment, Southwest Airlines said the HEPA filters on the company’s aircraft “remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles.”
“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 company said in a statement.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, who initially said “I concur” after Kelly’s statements, later clarified that he was talking about the cleanliness of aircraft cabin air, not the need for face masks.
Face masks continue to be a controversial mandate 11 months after the Biden administration required them to be worn by all passengers and employees on airplanes, in airports and in other public facilities and vehicles that support interstate travel.
The mask mandate recently was extended through March 18.There have been 4,072 unruly passenger incidents reported so far this year involving face masks, according to the FAA and the Department of Transportation.
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