American Airlines CEO Walks Back Senate Testimony On Masks, Does A Mandate Still Make Sense?

At Congressional hearings this week, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said that masks provide little incremental benefit in air travel given the safety of the aircraft environment. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker chimed in, “I concur.” And has since been walking that back, though over the summer when virus prevalence was low he and the CEOs of United and Southwest were talking about ending the mask mandate.

Commercial aviation is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country (deregulation really just meant the government no longer told airlines where they could fly or what prices they could charge). They are heavily subsidized. Comments inconsistent with the position of the federal government are problematic, and Parker’s career legacy was tied to government largesse even before the pandemic. Nonetheless the question of masks on planes isn’t so easy in either direction.

The mask debate is fraught with sloppy thinking and motivated reasoning. Here’s how I parse it.

  • People confuse whether masks are protecting them, or protecting others from them. An N95 mask, properly fitted and properly worn, can protect you from others. A ‘medical mask’ or something or similar or less quality might protect others if you’re effective, limiting how much virus you emit (‘source control’). If you wear a mask you should be wearing a better mask

    >We don’t know how much masks help, either in cabin environments or outside of them. Even what looked like some of the best work showing effectiveness for low quality masks doesn’t hold up so well.

    Masks are probably less protective against the faster spreading variants than against the original Wuhan strain. But the greater the spread of a variant, less protective masks may have even greater benefits because each case prevented may have geometric benefits (if the limit on spread is only 50% as great, but each new case can cause on average 4 times as many new cases, the net benefit goes up). Finding that masks have only minimal reduction in spread doesn’t mean masks have very small benefit.

  • Aircraft cabin environments are fairly safe and limit spread. United in particular is worthy of a call out for using aircraft power to circulate air and take advantage of HEPA filtration during boarding and deplaning. But airports – and especially crowded security and gate areas – aren’t nearly as protective. End-to-end travel isn’t nearly as relatively low risk as time on the plane.

  • The reason we have transportation mask mandates isn’t because transportation is a riskier environment than other things people engage in – like restaurants, bars, theaters – but because the federal government had a plausible legal authority to impose mask mandates on travel but not other activities. (Even that legal justification is shaky at best.) I still believe that the mask mandate expires before the midterm elections.

  • There are intriguing reasons Omicron may not be as severe as previous variants (and population-level immunity to severe outcomes appears to account for no more than 40% of observed difference). This is all very encouraging if true, but at really high levels of spread this can still get very bad – a smaller percentage of bad outcomes at a much higher level of spread can mean a whole lot of bad outcomes.

  • The reason we care about a whole lot of spread all at once versus spread out over time is that overwhelmed hospitals lead to lack of treatment and worse patient outcomes. We’re all going to get it, and not getting infected now may increase the change you get it later – and indeed lengthens the pandemic.

    So when we think about masks what we care about is how long we’re delaying infection, and how much treatment improves in the meantime and whether spreading out infections increase our capacity to provide care. The benefit to masks is delay of infection – delay until we had vaccines, delay until we had better treatments.

  • We need access to better treatments now, and that will have far more juice than masks. The FDA is slow to schedule a meeting on Paxlovid, which shows incredible effectiveness against severe disease when taken within 3 days of symptom onset. As Tim Carney put it, “because it’s not a vaccine, and because it acknowledges the reality that everyone will catch COVID, Paxlovid has little love on the Left. Because it’s not Ivermectin and is made by Pfizer, it has little love on the Right.” Meanwhile the FDA is very busy.

  • We should be betting heavily on third doses, focusing efforts and messaging on restoring protectiveness – against infection (which also reduces spread), against severe disease, and because virus covered in antibodies aren’t as likely to infect others as well.

  • I am personally fine with masks but let’s not pretend they do more than they do. I wanted to wear them during flu season before all of this because I don’t want to get sick, I have too much going on for the forced downtime. And while I don’t love masks, I don’t hate them either. This isn’t about taking my aesthetic preferences and using those to frame the argument.

    But we’ve been dropping the ball on third doses until recent days, and we’re probably too late on that to matter for an Omicron wave. So we need to act quickly on Paxlovid, get clinical guidance out on fluvoxamine, and ride it out.

I’d argue that people who want to protect themselves should wear properly fitted N95 masks, and that we should have spent the past two years and billions of dollars allocated to airports to improve ventilation and create safer environments (the same goes for schools, that we’ve done little on ventilation two years in is a crime but so is failing to tie stimmie checks to vaccination). Singling out transportation for a mask mandate makes little scientific sense, but a lot of political sense. And that we’re still doing politics this far into the pandemic says a lot.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. How are they ever going to repeal the mask mandate?

    There is always another variant. We are at the point in time where the Wuhan virus is no longer a pandemic. It’s an endemic, not terribly dissimilar from the seasonal flu.

    We will never have zero cases. There will always be variants.

    Not to mention, there is always the chance of a new coronavirus, thanks to the mad scientists in the CCP labs in Wuhan and elsewhere.

    Against this reality, how are they ever going to lift the mask mandate? Meanwhile, more and more airlines are restoring full food and beverage service, especially in premium cabins.

  2. “Tying stimulus checks to shots.”
    That would have been cool-but a logistical nightmare.
    And what kind of train wreck would the Q crowd have created over that!!??

  3. ” An N95 mask, properly fitted and properly worn, can protect you from others. A ‘medical mask’ or something or similar or less quality might protect others if you’re effective, limiting how much virus you emit (‘source control’). If you wear a mask you should be wearing a better mask”

    This is an outright lie! 50+ years of evidence from occupational health and safety research says otherwise. Please stop spreading these lies that do nothing more than continue the antiscientific insanity we have been suffering through for nearly 2 years!

  4. “I still believe that the mask mandate expires before the midterm elections.”
    “Singling out transportation for a mask mandate makes little scientific sense, but a lot of political sense.”

    In short, health theatre for political reasons.
    The only thing surprising about this is that – apparently – a majority of the people still believe everything the Biden administration and the CDC tell them.

  5. if the CDC and NIH actually demonstrated that taking one step (such as vaccination which have well-researched and documented efficacies) would lead to the removal of other measures (such as mask wearing which has poorly documented efficacy), then people would trust health officials. But that is not happened. Vaccinated Americans are subjected to the same testing requirements, everyone has to wear masks etc – which is completely counter to what is necessary to enhance buy-in.
    It will likely require a change in Congress for there to be a change in the way the US manages covid. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

  6. The federal mandate was always a cheap political dog and pony show. It was Biden going “LoOk GuYs I’m DoInG SoMeThiNg aBoNT RoNa.”

    It will “conveniently” go away for mid-terms. Then Biden can say, “look guys our covid numbers are doing well, we can remove the mandate.”

  7. Parker obviously a fool. He should be supporting masks even without a federal mandate. I do not want something coughing all over or around me no mater how good the plan’s air circulation is. Masks help a lot. Science speaking, not me.

  8. Jerry, some of us are willing to fly because of the mask mandate, I certainly won’t if the mask mandate is removed, so no more booking of flights in advance, since I don’t know what the policy might be, especially now on Southwest and American. I’ve just transferred all my assets out of Bask Bank (linked to AA), I don’t need any more AA air miles. Science I am reading says mask mandates continue to work.

  9. Enough with the useless and even DANGEROUS masks! keep wearing them if you’re a cowardly little girl, but for the free-thinking and rational among us, we will live our lives as WE see fit! Do NOT tell us what to do!

    Maybe some of you should just stay the f*%k home….

  10. @Amazing Larry
    Just returned from France on Swiss. All museums, airports, theaters, grocery stores and indoor eating require masks and some a Sanitary Pass. The same in Switzerland. To return I needed to pass a Covid test. Have no problem wearing a mask. Anti-vaxxers should stay home and keep voting for Chumpster Fools. Maybe you should run for office. Just think of all the votes you will get. You would be a hero for the Chump anti-vaxxers.

  11. There’s a saying out there, “the cure to the common cold, is the cold.” Avoiding ever getting sick is not the answer (this is not as much a commentary on COVID, though it applies, as it is a general principle). I’m responding to the fragile, short-sighted strategy Gary espouses “I wanted to wear them during flu season before all of this because I don’t want to get sick.” That’s like preventing small forest fires only to perpetuate a raging fire. I thought Gary was sympathetic to Austrian economics.

    Also, the only thing worse than stimmy checks is tying it to prerequisite medical treatment. If a group in my county banded together, regularly engaged in racketeering, then despite paying routinely, burned my business down and offered to dilute my remaining savings while offering me a small sum of cash if and only if I participated in a medical experiment, I think I’d be a little phased

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