Delta CEO: Masks are still important on planes
Rick Bowmer/AP

Delta CEO: Masks are still important on planes

Delta CEO Ed Bastian thinks wearing masks on airplanes is a good idea.

The day after Southwest CEO Gary Kelly suggested at a Senate hearing that wearing masks on a plane was not necessary, Bastian said he doesn’t agree. He said masks would be necessary for the foreseeable future.

“I don’t know that I agree with Gary’s remarks, particularly as we see Omicron continue to enter into our country,” Bastian said in an interview on CNBC. “Masks are going to be important as a safeguard for a while yet.”

Kelly and two other airline CEOs — Doug Parker of American Airlines and Scott Kirby of United — testified Wednesday about the financial support that the federal government provided to the US airline industry in 2020 and 2021. But Kelly was asked by the ranking Republican on the committee, Roger Wicker, if he thought that masks were still needed on planes.

“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,” said Kelly.

Parker appeared at the hearing to agree with Kelly, saying, “I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be. It’s true of all of our aircraft — they all have the same HEPA filters and air flow.” But after the hearing American Airlines walked back Parker’s remarks, saying that his concurrence with Kelly was on the point about the quality of the air in the aircraft cabin, not mask requirements.

Early in the pandemic, all the airlines kept the middle seats open to provide social distancing on planes. It was an easy thing to do when there were relatively few passengers on planes. But, as demand for flying returned, most quickly started filling middle seats once again. Delta kept the middle seats open far longer than its rivals, not booking passengers into the middle seats until May 1, 2021.

Whether or not the airlines agree or disagree with the masks, they are required by US Department of Transportation rules, not airlines’ individual preferences. And they are unlikely to be lifted any time soon. The DOT did not respond to a request for comment on Kelly’s remarks, which were made late Wednesday afternoon.

Bastian was appearing on CNBC to discuss new financial guidance that the airline had given that it now expects to report a profit in the fourth quarter. That came as a bit of a surprise: Delta had previously forecast it would lose money in the quarter. Delta was the only US airline to report a profit in the third quarter.

At the time it forecast the fourth quarter loss in October, it said it expected rising fuel prices would tip it back to a loss.

“We had a really strong close to the year,” Bastian said. “The holiday bookings for Christmas and the New Year’s holidays, are coming in very strong. A lot of people are getting back out and seeing people. The combination of stronger revenue and some moderation in fuel prices will result in a profit.”

Revenue will still be down from the fourth quarter of 2019, mostly because the airline isn’t flying as complete a schedule as it did before the pandemic. But he said the revenue brought in for every mile flown will be up from 2019 levels.

Although Delta is looking for a strong close to the year, Bastian cautioned that with the rise of Omicron, bookings will probably fall sharply in early 2022. The early part of the year is one of the weakest for leisure travel and many businesses could be pulling back plans to reopen offices and authorize travel in the face of rising Omicron cases, and more restrictions on international travel.

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