In a rare moment of candor, the CEOs of the two largest domestic airlines in the United States both expressed personal belief that mask mandates do little to promote safety onboard commercial flights. But hours later, both airlines tried to walk back the statements of their CEOs. Then in pure doublespeak, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker released a lengthy “clarification.”
Southwest Airlines, American Airlines CEO Question Need For Masks On Airplanes
During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Payroll Support Program, Senator Roger Wicker (R – MS), asked if masks should continue to be mandated on aircraft.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said:
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker quickly added:
“I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and air flow.”
But after the hearing, American Airlines tried to walk back Parker’s statement, stating he “did not intend to cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes.” The statement added:
“As noted in Doug’s testimony, we support the federal mask mandate, and masks are an important part of our commitment to keeping our customers and team members healthy and safe.”
Southwest also tried to walk back Kelly’s statement,
“A sophisticated air distribution system introduces fresh outside air and HEPA-filtered air into the cabin, 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.”
But this wasn’t even the first time Kelly had stated publicly he supported phasing out the mask mandate.
That did not stop Senator Ed Markey (D – MA) from attacking Parker and Kelly:
“I’m shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested we no longer need masks mandates on planes. In the face of Omicron, children under five who still cannot be vaccinated….and that we still allow unvaccinated people on planes.”
Markey called it “immoral” for someone to have to sit next to an unvaccinated passenger without a mask.
Parker Further Walks Back Mask Comment In Lengthy Statement
Even after clarification from American Airlines, Parker released a lengthy statement on Instagram seeking to clarify his mask comment:
We had a great hearing with the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, with bipartisan agreement that the Payroll Support Program is a success and provided remarkable benefits to the U.S. economy.
Unfortunately, I should have been clearer in my response to one question that has led to a misrepresentation of American’s position on the mask mandate. During an exchange about the quality of aircraft cabin air, I agreed with my fellow CEOs that being onboard a plane is proven to be a safe and healthy indoor environment. I did so by saying, “I concur”, and then talked about air quality. I didn’t mention masks or the federal mask mandate, but my concurrence was ambiguous and it is my fault for not being clearer in my response.
We support the federal mask mandate. Full stop. It was issued by the TSA and in consultation with CDC and other health experts to protect the safety and well-being of our customers and team members. Our job is to enforce the mandate. We have an incredible team at American that does that extremely well and the overwhelming majority of our customers comply without issue.
We look forward to the day when there will be no federal mask mandate for air travel, because that will mean the pandemic is behind us. But today is not that day. We are strongly supportive of TSA’s recent extension of the mandate to March 18, 2022. The outstanding #AATeam will ensure it is enforced.
So, to be clear: Wear a mask! It’s a federal mandate when you travel by air. And enjoy your flight. The hard-working people of American Airlines are ready to take you safely wherever you’d like to go.
The “clarification” is understandable, but I’m not buying it. Of course saying that masks add little to in-flight safety was the wrong answer from many perspectives. It angered lawmakers who set regulatory policy and dole out taxpayer assistance. It angered flight attendants, who are forced to enforce the mandate.
But I tend to agree with Parker and Kelly, even as the omicron variant rears its ugly head.
Please Wear A Proper Mask…
I am sympathetic to Kelly’s statement and Parker’s concurrence because of the choice of mask most people bring onboard an airplane.
Masks are primarily worn not to protect yourself, but to protect others. Cloth masks are not totally useless at preventing the spread of droplets, but their efficacy compared to medical-grade masks is highly questionable.
And yet I routinely see most people wearing loosely-fitting cloth masks when I fly in the USA. And it really makes me thing this is all a big charade.
Nevertheless, masks have been effective in slowing the spread of virus and until the mask mandate ends, I would encourage you to join me in switching to an N95 or at least a surgical mask (I’ll only put on a cloth mask when I am in a longhaul premium cabin seat with no passengers around). When you wear an N95, you’re protected too.
I am also sympathetic to Parker and Kelly’s sentiment because the re-circulating air with HEPA filters in most airline cabins (some regional jets do not have this) make it one of the safest indoor environments in the world to be around other people in.
So I absolutely think Parker wants to end the mask mandate and questions its usefulness, but the doublespeak was necessary considering the foreseeable outrage from expressing such a divergent thought.
I do find it hard to blame Parker and Kelly for their sentiment, but I also understand the bad optics of questioning a mask mandate while asking your employees to enforce it. While the “clarification” statements may have been necessary, I am convinced that Parker meant exactly what he seemed to say at the Senate hearing.