It’s clear that Kelly is right that the air on planes is safer than most any other indoor setting, including most offices and stores. Not only does it pass through medical-grade HEPA filters, but the cabin air is exchanged with outside air consistently throughout the flights.
Experts believe that the masks have another and less obvious benefit for the airlines — they provide passengers with the confidence they need to book the flights in the first place.
“I can’t speak to the science of whether masks help. But my thoughts with the mask mandate is that they help with booking leisure travel,” said Kerry Tan, professor of economics at Loyola Unversity Maryland and an expert on the economics of air travel. “I feel like it generally will give passengers peace of mind.”
Although business travel and international travel have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, leisure travel is believed to be near 2019 levels, especially during the holiday travel season.
The number of passengers who won’t fly because they don’t like masks is likely greatly outnumbered by those who book flights because they know the people sitting around them will wear masks, Tan said. Of course he admits that is difficult to prove, since there is no hard evidence one way or another.
What is known is that in the early days of the pandemic, all the airlines were leaving the middle seats empty as a way to provide passengers with some degree of social distancing on board. It was an easy accommodation to make since so few passengers were flying in those early days, when the pandemic caused demand for air travel to ground to a near halt.
The CEOs of other airlines have said they disagree with Kelly that masks are no longer needed. Even Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, who initially said “I concur” after Kelly made his statement, later said he misspoke and did not make it clear that he was only concurring with the belief that the air on planes is safe, not that masks are unnecessary.
“We support the federal mask mandate. Full stop. It was issued by the TSA and in consultation with CDC and other health experts to protect the safety and well-being of our customers and team members. Our job is to enforce the mandate,” Parker said in a follow-up statement Thursday evening. “We look forward to the day when there will be no federal mask mandate for air travel, because that will mean the pandemic is behind us. But today is not that day.”
All four major airlines declined to speculate if their bookings are helped or hurt by the mask mandate, but other experts agree that it’s likely a benefit.
“It’s not a big deterrent for people to take trips on planes, so it’s probably a net positive for bookings at this point,” said Savi Syth, airline analyst for Raymond James. “This is a service business. Airlines need to make sure passengers are as comfortable as possible. Even if no one likes wearing masks, many would feel less comfortable if others are not doing so.”