Southwest, American CEOs say face masks not needed with airplane filtration systems – Lincoln Journal Star


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American Airlines and all other carriers have been requiring face masks on airplanes since the summer of 2020.

The CEOs of Southwest Airlines and American Airlines say the air in airplane cabins is clean enough that face masks don’t provide significant additional protection to passengers from COVID-19.

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

“I concur,” said Doug Parker, CEO of Fort Worth-based American Airlines. “The aircraft is the safest place you can be. That’s true of all of our aircraft.”

The airline executives made the comments Wednesday during a U.S. Senate committee hearing into how the airlines used $54 billion in federal grants since March 2020 to help them financially survive the pandemic.

The comments contradict efforts by the Biden administration to require face masks on airplanes, in airports and on other forms of interstate transportation, such as buses and trains. President Joe Biden made airplane face mask mandates among his first executive orders when he took office in January and has since renewed the face mask mandate through March 18, 2022.

Airlines have been requiring face masks on airplanes since the summer of 2020 and then subsequently partnered with the Department of Defense and research universities such as Harvard to show that HEPA filtration systems on airplanes make it difficult for coronavirus to spread among passengers.

Over the last year, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation have noted a sharp uptick in reports of unruly passengers, often violent outbursts that have resulted in assaults on crew members such as flight attendants and gate agents. There have been 5,664 reports so far this year, according to the FAA’s data through Dec. 14, and 4,072 of those incidents have been tied to mask-related problems.

Kelly, who announced he is retiring in February, is also the chairman of Airlines 4 America, the main trade group for major airlines.

Parker, in a statement provided to the committee ahead of the hearing, said “Airlines have required masks since early in the pandemic as an additive health and safety measure, and our industry strongly supported the introduction of the federal mask mandate.”

Scott Kirby, CEO of Chicago-based United Airlines, said several studies show that airplane cabins are safe. Those studies are often industry-funded.

“The conclusion of that is that effectively anywhere that you’re going to be indoors, the airplane is the safest place that you can be indoors,” Kirby said. “It’s because the air filters safer than a theater, safer actually than an intensive care unit because we have HEPA grade filters.”

Kirby said airplane filters cycle air 20 to 30 times an hour, as opposed to twice or three times an hour in a hospital ICU. The studies from airlines also show that the way the air flows in cabins, from the ceiling to the floor, also reduces the risk of COVID-19 spread among passengers.

However, those studies were conducted on mannequins and may not be sufficient to cover the complexity of humans, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA. She also said that not all passengers have been vaccinated or have access to vaccines.

Nelson said she believes the mask mandate should stay in place for now.

“The filtration system is different from airline to airline or from aircraft to aircraft, so not all aircraft have the HEPA filtration,” Nelson said. “What I will tell you is we look forward to the day that we no longer have the mask requirement. We are simply trying to get through this pandemic and have had to enforce this to keep everyone safe.”

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