by Laurel Duggan

Mask mandates do little, if anything, to make the air safer inside airplanes, two major airline CEOs argued before Congress Wednesday.

“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Gary Kelly, chief executive of Southwest Airlines, told lawmakers. Being inside a plane “is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting,” Kelly said. The air filters on planes turn over clean air every three minutes, eliminating nearly all airborne pathogens, he explained.

Doug Parker, chief executive of American Airlines, said that “the aircraft is the safest place you can be.” He argued that the mask mandates create extra work for airline employees and tension between staff and passengers, citing emotional exchanges over COVID-19 protocols.

Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey pushed back against the executives’ claims, saying that the omicron variant, unvaccinated children under five and the fact that “we still allow unvaccinated on airplanes to fly in our country” justify the mask mandate remaining in place. It is unfair to require vaccinated people to sit next to unmasked, unvaccinated people on planes, according to Markey.

The Congressional hearing was intended as an opportunity to examine how federal funding during the pandemic impacted the commercial airline sector in light of widespread disruptions to air travel.

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