On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened for a hearing entitled “Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry.” Among the many topics addressed during the three-hour panel discussion, legislators asked airline CEOs to characterize the $54 billion in aid they received under the Payroll Support Program (money well spent), whether inflation and labor shortages were impacting the airline industry (of course), and whether consumers could expect greater relief in the form of refunds and reduced baggage fees (no).
Arguably the most eyebrow-raising revelations from the hearing came from a five-minute period in which the top executives from major U.S. airlines all seemed to imply that wearing masks on flights is essentially unnecessary.
“Let me ask about air quality,” said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who seized on a line from the opening statement of John Laughter, Delta Air Lines’ Executive Vice President & Chief of Operations: “We continue to electrostatically spray our aircraft interiors with high-grade disinfectant and use HEPA air filters to remove 99.99% of airborne particles onboard.”
Wicker repeated the line and asked Laughter if the HEPA filters were new “or there all along?”
“Those are HEPA filters that are part of an aircraft circulation system. And I would assume that our all modern airliners have those same systems,” Laughter said.
Wicker delved further into this claim, noting Delta’s partnership with the “top health experts in the world” at the Mayo Clinic. “And what did they tell you about the quality of air with respect to the virus, as compared to say, a theater, church, concert hall, perhaps a hearing room? What do they tell you?” asked the senator.
“Part of the discussion on the HEPA filters on board the aircraft was to understand what that air turnover rate was, and how the air quality onboard the aircraft would compare to other facilities,” said Delta’s COO. “I think we all generally agree now that the cycle of the way air turns over in a pressurized air cabin, and the filtration system is superior to many indoor spaces that you can be.”
Wicker then asked United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby if his airline offered a similarly safe environment on its planes.
Kirby spoke of partnering with the Cleveland Clinic and how the Department of Defense tested airflow on United’s airplanes. “And 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, it’s because of the air filtration,” said the United CEO.
Next, Wicker deftly linked air filtration with the face mask mandate. “Will we ever, do you think, be able to get on an airplane without masks?” the senator asked of Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.
Kelly echoed the other CEOs’ comments on air quality, noting that his airline partners with UT Southwestern and Stanford School of Medicine. “Yeah, 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.”
“I concur,” said Parker. “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.”
What came next was a swift and thorough factcheck from Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), a union representing 50,000 flight attendants on 17 airlines.
The studies the CEOs had referenced were “done with mannequins who were sitting straight forward with masks on, not removing them, not eating at any point in time,” Nelson said. “So it is important to recognize that the safe controlled environment on the plane is a layered safety protocol, which includes the sanitation of the aircraft and includes the service procedures and includes the HEPA filtration that is not on all aircraft, by the way, and it includes everyone wearing the masks.”
Wicker ignored the clarification on mask-wearing mannequins, but instead asked which flights do and do not feature HEPA filtration systems.
“It differs from aircraft to aircraft,” said Nelson. “So not all aircraft have the HEPA filtration.” Older planes often did not, she added. “The flights that you take to Mississippi, for example.”
“We absolutely look forward to the day that we no longer have the mask requirement,” said Nelson, “but not everyone on our planes have had access to the vaccine yet either.”
“I’m shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested that we no longer need mask mandates on planes,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, noting the rapid spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. “Children under five who still cannot be vaccinated,” he continued, “and we still allow unvaccinated people on planes to fly in our country.”
Some health experts were incredulous at the airlines’ narrative. “Frankly, it is so troubling that I don’t know where to begin,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, a primary care physician in Washington, D.C., who served as an advisor on health policy in the Obama administration. “If there is one thing that is crystal clear, it is that this is an airborne virus and, yes, air filtration matters but given the proximity of passengers on planes there is very little doubt that masks play a significant role in reducing transmission.”
“It’s a workplace safety issue,” said Nelson at the hearing. “Although I will be very clear that we do look forward to the day that we can vaccinate the entire world and and get on with this and not have to have the mask mandate.”
Yesterday, the day after the senate hearing, Delta CEO Ed Bastien told CNBC he did not agree with the other airline executives’ assessment on the mask issue. “Particularly when we see omicron continuing to enter into our country, masks are going to be important as a safeguard for a while yet.”
Later, Doug Parker also took the opportunity to clarify his position on Instagram. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
The U.S. does not have a contact-tracing program for domestic flights, so there is no way for Americans to ever know whether they have been exposed to Covid-19 on a domestic flight. But travelers should understand that flying without wearing a mask during the pandemic would be a risky activity, said Dr. Patel. “International flights that have not had mask requirements have become superspreader events almost akin to cruise ships,” she said. “To state otherwise is irresponsible.”
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