The CEOs of two major airlines in the United States are speaking out this week to question if masks are really necessary on airplanes.

American Airlines (AAL) CEO Doug Parker and Southwest (LUV) CEO Gary Kelly were asked about masks on planes during a Senate hearing on the financial support that airlines received from the federal government in 2020 and 2021. The question was posed to them by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), the ranking Republican on the Senate committee holding the hearing.

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

Kelly and Parker, both of whom are set to retire in the next few months, have argued that high-grade HEPA air filters on airplanes get rid of virtually all contaminants in the air. They have also said that cabin air is exchanged with fresh air from outside the cabin so frequently that the quality of the air in the plane is high at all times.

“I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be,” said Parker. “It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and airflow.”

American Airlines has since tried to backtrack from Parker’s comments, however, by saying that he was concurring with Kelly on his point about the quality of the air in the aircraft cabin, not mask requirements. Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, tried to express support for mask requirements in the hearing by saying that not all older planes have HEPA filters.

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“I think that is probably for the medical community to decide rather than me,” Nelson added. “What I will add is that the studies that have been done [on masks]….were done with mannequins that were sitting straight forward with masks on, not removing them, not eating. It is important to recognize that the safe, controlled environment on planes…includes the HEPA filters that are not on all aircraft.”

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) was fuming over the airline CEOs’ remarks.

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“I’m shocked that some of the CEOs here today have suggested we no longer need masks mandates on planes,” he said. “In the face of Omicron, children under five who still cannot be vaccinated….and that we still allow unvaccinated people on planes.”

Nelson agreed that mask mandates on planes should not be lifted at this time.

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“I believe that the government has taken a very responsible approach to this,” she said. “We believe it should continue to stay in place. It’s a workplace safety issue. We do need a consistent message though. It troubles me too to hear different messages. I would hope we are going to stay on the same messages and follow the medical experts and do what’s necessary to keep everybody safe.”

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