Update (Dec. 19, 2021): Just two days after airline executives warned a Senate committee about staffing shortages related to the pandemic, Southwest Airlines confirmed its CEO Gary Kelly tested positive for COVID-19 after the hearing. Kelly did not wear a mask during the hearing and questioned the health benefit of masks on airplanes.
“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much if anything in the air cabin environment,” Kelly said at the hearing. “It’s very safe, very high quality compared to any other indoor setting.”
Late Friday, Southwest released an email Kelly sent to employees that sought to clarify his comments. In the email, he said the airline supports the current federal mask mandate at airports and on airplanes.
“There is no effort underway to change it before it expires,” Kelly wrote in the email. “The majority of our Employees and Customers have felt it has been an important layer of protection, and I certainly agree with that.”
Original Story (Dec. 16, 2021): Executives from some of the largest airlines in America have two warnings for Americans: They are still facing staffing shortages, and plans by wireless carriers to use spectrum for 5G wireless services could soon disrupt thousands of daily flights.
The executives testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday. The purpose of the hearing was to gauge the effectiveness of the Payroll Support Program. The program was implemented during the pandemic “to protect the airline workforce, support the continuity of safe and essential travel, and ensure the industry’s ability to remain viable to meet future travel demand,” according to the committee.
“By ensuring airlines had funding to continue to pay their employee’s wages, salaries, and benefits, the Payroll Support Program saved the jobs and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers,” committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said in her opening statements.
Despite the funding, the airline executives said staffing shortages persist. In his testimony, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said although workers are doing a great job during the pandemic, they are reluctant to take extra shifts due to the risk of catching spreading COVID-19, as well as having to deal with unruly passengers.
“We’re seeing customer emotions run high, and the industry has experienced an unsettling raft of passenger disturbances and assaults onboard aircraft and in airports,” Parker said Wednesday. “The general level of disrespect, anger, and impatience our team has had to manage in recent months is simply inexcusable.”
After discussing staffing shortages at the hearing, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said AT&T and Verizon Communications must delay the plans to use C-Band spectrum for 5G wireless services. If the plans go through as expected on Jan. 5, it could delay, divert or cancel about 4% of daily flights, and cost hundreds of thousands of passengers $1.6 billion annually in delays.
“It would be a catastrophic failure of government,” Kirby told reporters after the hearing.
The aviation industry and the Federal Aviation Administration have raised concerns about potential interference of 5G with sensitive aircraft electronics like radio altimeters. The FAA issued new airworthiness directives last week warning that interference from 5G wireless spectrum could result in flight diversions. The FAA did not quantify the impact.
“Coming Jan. 5 — unless something changes — we will not be able to use radio altimeters at 40-something of the largest airports in the country,” Kirby said. “It is a certainty. This is not a debate.”