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Southwest CEO tests positive for Covid after unmasked Senate hearing with other airline chiefs

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly testifies during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation oversight hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 15, 2021.

Chip Somodevilla | Pool | Reuters

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has tested positive for Covid-19, the company said Friday. The news came after a Senate hearing this week in which he and other airline chiefs and lawmakers weren’t wearing masks.

Kelly, along with the CEOs of United Airlines and American Airlines, Delta Air Lines‘ chief of operations, and the president of the country’s largest flight attendant union testified in person for more than three hours at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon about $54 billion in federal payroll support airlines took to weather the pandemic.

“Although testing negative multiple times prior to the Senate Commerce Committee Hearing, Gary tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home, experiencing mild symptoms, and taking a PCR test,” a Southwest spokeswoman said in a statement. “Gary is doing well and currently resting at home, he has been fully vaccinated and received the booster earlier this year. Gary’s symptoms continue to be mild, and each day he is moving closer to a full recovery.”

Delta’s chief of operations, John Laughter, who testified in the hearing on Wednesday and sat two seats away from Kelly, tested negative Thursday and Friday.

“He will continue to test and take other precautions as necessary,” the airline said in a statement.

American and United didn’t immediately comment.

Senators questioned witnesses on recent flight disruptions, airlines’ hiring trouble, 5G, as well as vaccine and mask mandates.

During the hearing, when Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asked airline CEOs whether they foresee passengers not having to wear masks on board, Kelly touted the effectiveness of on-board air filtration and circulation systems and said: “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much if anything in the air cabin environment.”

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, immediately after Kelly’s response in the hearing, said “I concur” but the company on Thursday issued a statement saying he meant to concur with “comments made by other witnesses about the high quality of aircraft cabin air, and did not intend to cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes.”

Parker later published a long statement on his Instagram account saying that the airline supports the mask mandate and that he “should have been clearer in  my response to one question that has  led to a misrepresentation of American’s position on the mask mandate.”

Air travel has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Demand has since recovered, mostly thanks to domestic leisure trips. Executives from Delta and United this week said they are gearing up busy year-end holiday season, despite the spread of the omicron variant.

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 the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, December 15, 2021.

Chip Somodevilla | Pool | Reuters

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