1 of 5 | (L-R) American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, Delta Air Lines Executive Vice President John Laughter and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson testify before before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Pool Photo by Chip Somodevilla/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 15 (UPI) -- The heads of several major American airlines testified in front of Congress on Wednesday to discuss the impact the COVID-19 pandemic on their industry and how they have used federal aid to mitigate the damage.
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, United CEO Scott Kirby and John Laughter, executive vice president and chief of operations for Delta Air Lines, all testified in front of the Senate commerce, science and transportation committee in a hearing titled "Oversight of the U.S. Airline Industry."
Kelly and Parker both questioned the need to wear masks on flights, saying the facial coverings don't do much to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
"I think the case is very strong that masks don't add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It is very safe and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting," Kelly said.
"I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be," Parker added. "It's true of all of our aircraft -- they all have the same HEPA filters and air flow."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has mandated masks on all commercial planes.
Other witnesses included Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Mike Tretheway, chief economist and executive vice president of InterVISTAS Consulting.
Nelson testified that not all aircraft are equipped with the same quality of air filters. She pointed to some older aircraft that don't have HEPA filters.
The remarks by Kelly and Parker were met with criticism.
"I'm shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested we no longer need masks mandates on planes," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told the committee.
Airlines have struggled to maintain workers despite having received about $54 billion in federal payroll aid throughout the pandemic and now face the challenge of rebuilding their workforce as demand for air travel returns.
During the early months of the pandemic, airlines encouraged thousands of workers to voluntarily accept buyouts or take leaves of absence. In February, American furloughed about 13,000 employees as federal aid was set to expire.
American and Southwest were forced to cancel thousands of flights this fall as they dealt with staff shortages and inclement weather. Southwest said it lost $75 million in October due to the grounded flights.
Companies were able to boost staff availability during the Thanksgiving travel season by offering incentives such as increases to holiday pay.
With airline demand back on the rise, Southwest said it plans to hire more than 8,000 employees in 2022 after taking on 5,000 in 2021.
In prepared testimony, Parker said American plans to hire 18,000 new employees in 2022 after adding 16,000 in 2021. He said the carrier believes the "positive momentum" for the industry will carry into next year.
Marine One, carrying President Joe Biden, departs from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, to travel to South Carolina State University's fall commencement ceremony. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/UPI | License Photo