Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly stirred up some controversy Wednesday when he suggested that wearing masks on planes did little to prevent the spread of Covid. "I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much if anything in the air cabin environment," he said in response to a question at a Senate hearing. "It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting." Two days later Southwest disclosed that Kelly, who was not wearing a mask at the hearing, had tested positive for Covid.
It's clear that Kelly is right that the air on planes is safer than most any other indoor setting, including most offices and stores. Not only does it pass through medical-grade HEPA filters, but the cabin air is exchanged with outside air consistently throughout the flights. But the Centers for Disease Control and the Transportation Security Administration insist that even with that air quality, masks still are important to combat the transmission of Covid among passengers, many of whom are unvaccinated, as they are packed together closer than perhaps they'd be in any other setting for hours at a time. The federal rules requiring masks not only on planes but also on trains and buses are set to stay in effect until at least March 2022.