Keep Them On: Airline CEOs Question Mask Use on Planes, but Experts Disagree

Mid-flight assaults have skyrocketed this year.
Mid-flight assaults have skyrocketed this year. Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash
During a congressional hearing Wednesday, the CEOs of two North Texas-based airlines, Southwest and American, cast doubt on the efficacy of masks on planes.

After news broke of their stance on face coverings, certain conservative politicians appeared to celebrate on social media. But some experts fear that the airline heads’ remarks could give passengers the green light to behave badly.

Responding to a question posed during Wednesday’s Senate committee hearing, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly touted the quality of cabin air, according to CNN.

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

Both Kelly and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker claimed that nearly all airborne contamination is caught by HEPA air filters, CNN reported. They also mentioned that the cabin’s air quality benefits from regular exchanges of fresh outside air for stale cabin air.

Parker agreed with Kelly’s remarks on aircraft safety. But American Airlines later clarified in a statement that his concurrence wasn’t about face covering mandates, but rather cabin air quality.

Multiple Texas Republican politicians shared the mask news to social media, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Deer Park state Rep. Briscoe Cain. During the hearing, Texas’ junior Sen. Ted Cruz also slammed United Airlines’ CEO over the company’s vaccine requirement.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, masks have morphed into a hot-button partisan issue. But even though federal aviation guidelines mandate their use on planes, some passengers have flat-out refused to comply.

“Do not take this as any type of green light to think that you cannot abide by federal air regulations." – Dr. Erin Bowen

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As of this week, more than 4,070 mask-related incidents have been reported so far this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Officials initiated 183 investigations in 2020; this year, the number has skyrocketed to 1,030.

Reports of mid-flight fights have also been ramping up in recent months.

In early November, a “customer disturbance” caused a Delta flight to be diverted to Dallas. Later that month, a passenger assaulted a Southwest Airlines employee, who had to be hospitalized.

Regardless of what the airline CEOs are saying, passengers should still wear masks on planes, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of the county’s health department. Face coverings can prevent the release of droplets from someone who may be infected, and they also protect the wearer from exposure.

“Granted, I think planes have good air ventilation and filtration systems, but that’s not to the level that it can prevent that exposure from someone sitting next to you or right around you,” he said, adding that everyone should get vaccinated and sign up for the booster when eligible.

It’s great that leaders question assumptions, said Dr. Erin Bowen, an aviation psychology researcher and A. Dale Thompson endowed professor of leadership at the University of Texas at Arlington. But face coverings are required by federal regulations, just as smoking isn’t allowed and seatbelts are mandatory for takeoff and landing.

Challenging mask efficacy has the potential to undermine the safety of frontline employees, including flight attendants, cabin crews and pilots, Bowen said. Regardless of whatever the CEOs said, passengers should remember that the federal mask mandate is still in effect on aircrafts — “period, end of story.”

“So, please, please, do not take this as any type of green light to think that you cannot abide by federal air regulations,” she said. “Because you are at risk of fines; you are at risk of being removed from your flight or having other negative consequences. And nobody wants that at the holidays.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter