The chief executives of some major U.S. airlines questioned on Dec. 15 how much wearing masks onboard flights helps to limit exposure to COVID-19, noting that an aircraft is “the safest place you can be.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, and United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby made the comments during a Senate Commerce committee hearing on aviation issues, titled “Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry.”
The hearing focused on the Payroll Support Program that Congress designed to protect the airline workforce and support the continuity of safe and essential travel amid the pandemic.
But the topic of masks arose via a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking Republican on the Senate panel holding the hearing, who asked John Laughter, executive vice president and chief of operations at Delta Air Lines about air quality on flights and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
Referring to Laughter’s testimony, Wicker said, “You wrote … ‘We continue to electrostatically spray our aircraft interior with high-grade disinfectant and use HEPA air filters to remove 99.99 percent of airborne particles on board.’ Is this new, or were those HEPA filters there all along?”
Laughter said the HEPA filters are part of an aircraft circulation system and that he would “assume that all modern airliners have those same systems,” while adding that his company had partnered with the Mayo Clinic to assess the quality of air in cabins.
Wicker then asked what the top health experts had told his airline about the quality of air in cabins, with respect to COVID-19, compared to a “theater, a church, concert hall, perhaps a hearing room.”
“Part of the discussion about HEPA filters onboard the aircraft was to understand what that air turnover rate was and how the air quality onboard the aircraft would compare to other facilities,” Laughter replied. “I can’t speak to this room or any theater, but 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 in.”
United’s Kirby said his company had partnered with the Cleveland Clinic and the Department of Defense to test the air flow on airplanes.
“The conclusion of that is that effectively anywhere that you’re going to be indoors, the airplane is the safest place that you could be indoors because of the air filtration system. … Far safer than a theater, far safer actually than an intensive care unit, because we have HEPA-grade filters but we filter the air 20 to 30 times an hour and in a typical ICU, it’s two to three times an hour.
“Aircraft are a remarkably safe environment,” he said, adding that sitting next to someone on a flight is the equivalent of being “15 feet away from them in a typical building.”
Wicker then asked the airline bosses if they believed passengers would ever be able to get on flights again without having to wear face masks.
Referring to the high number of airborne particles captured by HEPA filters, Southwest’s Kelly said, “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 from American Airlines. “An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft—they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.”
However, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, noted that not all aircraft are equipped with the same quality of air filters, adding that wearing masks is part of a “layered safety protocol” during flights.
“I think that is probably for the medical community to decide rather than me,” Nelson said. “What I will add is that the studies that have been done [on masks] … were also done with mannequins that were sitting straight forward with masks on, not removing them, not eating at any point in time.
“It is important to recognize that the safe, controlled environment on planes is a layered safety protocol which includes the sanitation of the aircraft, and includes the service procedure and includes the HEPA filters operation—that is not on all aircraft, by the way—and it includes everyone wearing the masks.”