- The Washington Times
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The chiefs of United Airlines and American Airlines told lawmakers Wednesday that the federal mask mandate doesn’t give passengers much extra protection from COVID-19 on flights, while the head of a flight attendants union called for a crackdown on airport alcohol sales to curb a spate of unruly travelers who often object to wearing masks.

During a Senate hearing to review the federal government’s $54 billion bailout of airlines during the pandemic, Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi asked airline executives whether passengers will ever be able to fly again without masks.

The CEOs of United and American suggested the mandate isn’t needed even now, citing the high-quality air filtration systems on most planes.

“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much in the air cabin environment,” said United CEO Scott Kirby.

American CEO Doug Parker replied, “I concur. The aircraft is the safest place you can be.”

In a statement after the hearing, American Airlines said Mr. Parker “concurred with the comments made by other witnesses about the high quality of aircraft cabin air, and did not intend to cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes.”

“As noted in Doug’s testimony, we support the federal mask mandate, and masks are an important part of our commitment to keeping our customers and team members healthy and safe,” the statement said. 

Delta Air Lines Chief of Operations John Laughter told lawmakers that the air quality on a passenger plane is “superior to many indoor spaces that you can be.” 

Mr. Kirby said cabin air is filtered 20 to 30 times per hour and is “far safer than a theater.”

Their answers drew an outraged response from Sen. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.

“I’m shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested that we no longer need mask mandates on planes,” Mr. Markey said. “There are tens of thousands of people flying who are unvaccinated today on planes in the United States. And it’s unfair to people who are vaccinated to have them sitting next to them with their mask off. It would be wrong, it would be immoral to ever take that position. People are petrified.”

Since the pandemic began, federal law has required travelers to wear masks at all times in airports and aboard planes. Airline workers say the mandate is often the flashpoint in a rising number of assaults and other disruptions by passengers on flights.

But Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the decision to lift the mask mandate is “probably for the medical community to decide.” She said the quality of air filtration systems on planes varies with the age of the aircraft and that masks are part of a “layered” protection system.

“We absolutely look forward to the day that we no longer have the mask requirement,” Ms. Nelson said. “We are simply trying to get through this pandemic and have had to enforce this to keep everyone safe.”

She said a more urgent need is for airports to stop the sale of “to go” alcohol before passengers board planes. Alcohol is the cause of about 60% of disruptive passengers during the pandemic, she told lawmakers.

“We do need more enforcement in the airports,” Ms. Nelson said. “We need to ban ‘to-go’ alcohol. This is a major issue. They are pushing it now in the airports, and that is unacceptable. We would hope that would stop.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has cited a “disturbing increase” in the number of unruly passengers as airlines return to fuller flights from pandemic restrictions. The FAA has received more unruly-passenger reports this year than it did in the entire previous decade, and it has imposed a zero-tolerance policy for interfering with or assaulting flight attendants.

Passenger complaints against airlines also have soared this year over canceled flights and failure to provide refunds. Mr. Markey said airlines owe passengers up to $20 billion in refunds but said the airlines “refuse to do the right thing.”

Mr. Parker said American refunded $3.2 billion in cash payments in 2020 alone “for every flight that we canceled.” 

But Mr. Markey said passengers who bail on scheduled flights due to “justifiable concern” about the risk of COVID-19 should receive a refund or a voucher to be used indefinitely.

Mr. Parker said his airline is offering such passengers a credit to be used through March 31, 2022. Mr. Markey said the term should be unlimited.

“The passengers want the money back,” Mr. Markey said. “They want fairness. They shouldn’t have to worry … that they have to jump on a flight in the next three months when the pandemic is rising.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, grilled Mr. Kirby about United’s vaccine mandate for employees and its termination of some workers who declined on religious grounds to get the shots. He said United accepted about 80% of requests for religious exemptions, but said about 200 other workers “chose to leave the company” over the policy.

Ms. Blackburn noted that airlines are complaining about finding enough employees and told him, “seems like you could be able to find a workaround” for the religious objectors.

Despite those concerns, the tenor of the hearing was mostly what Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, described as “a lovefest.” 

Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat, and Mr. Wicker both praised the airlines’ performances during the pandemic, and they called the federal government’s “payroll support program” a timely step that saved the industry.

The airline chiefs agreed and thanked lawmakers repeatedly for the billions in aid.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is the most disruptive crisis in the history of commercial aviation,” Mr. Kirby said. “The quick response by the federal government … prevented what would have been an unprecedented shutdown of air service that would have impacted the U.S. and world economy for years to come.”

Of the $54 billion in taxpayer-funded payroll grants to airlines in three rounds in 2020 and this year, the Treasury Department required larger carriers to repay 30% and to award the government stock agreements. Those stock options are reportedly now worth a tiny fraction of what taxpayers provided in aid.

The airlines also agreed to promissory notes to eventually pay back a total of $14 billion.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for Delta Air Lines executive John Laughter. He is chief of operations. 

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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