Airline executive says masks 'don't add much' on flights

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told a Senate panel on Wednesday that the air in passenger jets' cabins is so clean that face masks "don't add much" additional protection against the spread of COVID-19 on planes. 

"The statistics, I recall, is that 99.97 percent of airborne pathogens are captured by the HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filtering system, and it's turned over every two or three minutes," Kelly told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during a hearing on airline oversight.

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

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Southwest Airlines later said in a statement to The Hill that the "sophisticated air distribution system introduces fresh, outdoor 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," the airline added.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker added during the hearing that an "aircraft is the safest place you can be."

"That’s true of all of our aircraft,” he said.

American Airlines spokeswoman Stacy Day later clarified to The Hill that Parker's statements were not intended to "cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes."

"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," Day said.

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Former Surgeon General Jerome AdamsJerome AdamsCDC to reconsider latest guidance amid backlash, rise in cases Michigan shifts, will follow CDC isolation guidance Michigan says it won't adopt new CDC guidelines without 'additional information' MORE, however, called the executives' remarks at the hearing "irresponsible." 

"These folks are making record money right now because of these mask mandates. I was disgusted when I heard that," he said during an appearance early Thursday on CNN's "New Day."

Mask mandates on airlines and other forms of interstate transportation, such as buses and trains, were among the first executive orders signed by President BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE. He has since renewed the mandates until March. 

The hearing on Wednesday examined how the airlines have used the $54 billion in federal grants given to them at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Updated at 9:17 a.m.