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Southwest Airlines CEO who told Congress face masks ‘don’t add much’ protection now has COVID

Updated Dec 29th, 2022 5:38PM EST
Southwest Airlines CEO tests positive for COVID-19

After insisting to a Senate panel this week that airplane air filtration systems are so good that face masks really “don’t add much” additional protection for fliers, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has tested positive for COVID-19.

The Dallas-based air carrier confirmed his diagnosis on Friday, according to Reuters, which followed this week’s lengthy in-person Senate hearing for which Kelly sat in close proximity to other airline executives. None of them were wearing face masks. As of the time of this writing, though, none of the other participants had similarly confirmed a COVID-19 diagnosis, at least not publicly.

Southwest Airlines CEO: “I think the case is very strong masks don’t add much”

Here’s Kelly making those comments about what he perceives as the negligible impact of face masks. Worth pointing out: Based on the incubation period of the COVID-19 virus? It’s possible he was already positive for it while making these comments Wednesday, without realizing it.

Matter of fact, it’s probably more than “possible” he was already positive for COVID-19 when he made these comments. Because Reuters reports that Kelly was already telling people about his diagnosis the very next day, on Thursday.

From Kelly’s comments during the Senate hearing: “The statistics, I recall, is that 99.97 percent of airborne pathogens are captured by the (high-efficiency particulate air) filtering system, and it’s turned over every two or three minutes.

“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin. The environment is very safe, very high-quality compared to any other indoor setting.”

Layered protections

The problem with his comments is something that a lot of people seem to have had trouble grasping for the entirety of the pandemic thus far. What scientists and public health officials are trying to get people to embrace is the concept of layered protections. Vaccines, plus face masks, plus social distancing, and the like. For some reason, though, too many people are interpreting that formula as — well, that means vaccines and face masks are ineffective by themselves. And if they’re ineffective, why even bother at all!

It’s a little like wearing a seatbelt in a car. It’s no guarantee you won’t die in a car accident. But it certainly gives you much better odds. And no rational person regards the seatbelt as the only responsible course of action they need to take to ensure their auto safety. Not driving over the speed limit, not driving drunk — additional actions like those are part of the equation, too. Point is: We get this idea of layered protections in other part of our lives.

Yes, face masks are actually important

Kelly, nevertheless, seems to have trouble with that concept. What good is it to have pristine air in an enclosed cabin if a COVID-positive person right beside you is coughing up a lung right in your face?

Having said all this, meanwhile, man — what an end to a crummy year for Southwest.

The bad news has certainly piled up lately. A ton of canceled flights stranding people around the country. Anger from some in the rank-and-file over new vaccine rules. A Southwest pilot seemingly taking part in the Let’s Go Brandon movement. A CEO who thinks face masks are unnecessary — and who now has COVID-19.

The CEO’s diagnosis is also a reminder, not that anyone should need one at this point, that a much-more transmissible variant of COVID-19 called Omicron is on the rampage across the country at the moment. And it’s all the more reason to get vaccinated and boosted.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.