Airplane filtration reduces Covid risk, but masks are still needed
The CEO of a major airline suggested during a congressional hearing last week that face masks were of little value on planes – a claim that was quickly amplified online.
Citing high-quality filtration systems onboard aircraft, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said “masks add little, if anything, to the airline cabin environment.”
But the experts strongly disagree. While it is true that the common air filtration and distribution systems used in modern aircraft are very effective in reducing the risk of transmission of Covid-19 among passengers, masks add another layer of protection for travelers overhead, experts told The Associated Press.
Kelly’s comments came during a Wednesday hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. After returning home from the hearing, Kelly tested positive for Covid-19, a Southwest spokesperson confirmed to the AP on Friday.
Kelly made his comment about the masks in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican representing Mississippi, who asked Kelly and another airline CEO if they thought mask-free air travel might one day resume.
Kelly said ‘99.97% of airborne pathogens are captured’ by high-efficiency particulate air filters, or HEPA filters, on planes, before suggesting masks aren’t necessary during air travel.
“Yeah, I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, to the airline cabin environment,” Kelly said. “It’s very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor environment.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker seemed to agree, saying, “I agree, the plane is the safest place you can be.” He noted that all of his company’s aircraft are equipped with the same HEPA filters.
The comments were quickly picked up by the media and blogs, and shared on social media. “The CEOs of Southwest and American Airlines both said in Senate testimony today that masks on airplanes are useless,” said a tweet that has been shared more than 3,500 times.
Both CEOs clarified their comments to say they support current federal policy requiring masks on flights. Southwest Airlines provided the AP with a message Kelly sent to employees in which the CEO apologized for any “confusion” resulting from the hearing, saying Southwest continued to “support the current federal mask mandate in airlines.” airports and on airplanes.
Kelly said the airline adopted a mask requirement on board its flights in May 2020, before the federal government required it, and that employees and customers “felt it was an important layer of protection. , and I certainly agree with that”. He said the airline would “continue to rely on the advice of our medical experts regarding the need for masks”.
Parker later said on social media that he “agreed with my fellow CEOs that being on an airplane has proven to be a safe and healthy indoor environment.” But he said his statement at the hearing was unclear and that he supported the federal mask mandate, “period.”
Although HEPA filtration systems are very effective at reducing virus transmission, they do not completely eliminate the risks on board flights, according to Linsey Marr, aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. “The problem is that they only work on air as it passes through the filter,” she said in an email. “If you’re sitting next to someone who’s releasing a lot of virus into the air, you might end up inhaling them before they’ve had a chance to pass through the filtration system.”
Marr said it takes a few minutes for the air to completely pass through the filtration system. She said requiring everyone to wear a mask reduces the amount of virus an infected person can release into the air and helps reduce the amount of virus someone wearing a mask could breathe in.
Leonard J. Marcus, director of the Aviation Public Health Initiative at Harvard University, agreed. “Yeah, the ventilation system on airplanes is amazing. They’re comparable to what you might find in an operating room,” he said. But “it’s the multiple layers, it’s not just one thing.”
Marcus said masks are especially important when people get on and off planes or move around the plane cabin. Rising Covid-19 cases and the threat posed by the omicron variant also make mask-wearing essential on planes, he said.
“People are moving around, people are turning to talk to someone, people are sometimes lifting their masks to drink,” said Marcus, whose initiative released a report in October that supported a “layered” approach to reduce risks. “If everyone wears the mask, there will be much less disease transmission.”
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, a union representing some 50,000 flight attendants, also called masks a “key component” to flight safety, noting that not all planes have systems HEPA filtration.
Kelety reported from Phoenix; Filera of Philadelphia.
This is part of AP’s efforts to combat widely shared misinformation, including working with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content circulating online.