Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly tested positive for the coronavirus, the airline confirmed on Friday, just days after appearing at a Senate hearing where he and another airline leader questioned whether passengers needed to wear masks on planes.
Kelly attended a Senate Commerce Committee hearing alongside other airline industry officials on Wednesday, where they testified for more than three hours about the billions of dollars in federal aid that airlines received during the pandemic.
At one point in the lengthy hearing, Senator Roger Wicker asked Kelly and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker whether passengers would ever be able to board an airplane without being required to wear a mask.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment,” Kelly responded to the Mississippi Republican. He praised the effectiveness of air filtration and ventilation systems on airplanes. “It is very safe and high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”
Parker, who was sitting beside him, said: “I concur.”
The comments from the two CEOs attracted some criticism, including from Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
“I’m shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested we no longer need masks mandates on planes,” Markey said. “In the face of Omicron, children under five who still cannot be vaccinated, thousands of flight attendants who protect us every day, and that we still allow unvaccinated people on planes to fly in our country.”
Markey has been a proponent of plane mask mandates since the beginning of the pandemic. In April 2020, he called on federal officials to issue an emergency ruling making face coverings a requirement.
Announcing his positive test to employees two days later, Friday, Kelly also sought to clarify his stance on masks, CNBC reported.
“I confused some with a short answer to a question about masks,” he wrote in the note to staff. “So, to be clear, I and Southwest and along with [US airline lobbying group] Airlines for America are all aligned and support the current federal mask mandate at airports and on airplanes.”
“The majority of our Employees and Customers have felt it has been an important layer of protection, and I certainly agree with that,” Kelly added. “So we’ll continue to rely on the advice of our medical experts regarding the necessity of masks. And my apologies for any confusion!”
Meanwhile, Parker issued a statement on Instagram noting that he should have “been clearer” in his answer to the question. He said his response “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,” he wrote. “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.”
The hearing arrived just as travel for the holiday season is getting underway. Millions are expected to leave home — even as the Omicron and Delta variants sweep the nation and threaten to stall progress against the pandemic.
Southwest confirmed on Friday that Kelly tested positive for the virus. The other executives who were sitting alongside him at the hearing have all tested negative, according to their offices.