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That got ugly quick. A lovefest between U.S. senators and airline executives on the success of the federal Payroll Support Program quickly devolved into a shouting match over vaccine and mask mandates.

U.S. airline CEOs on Wednesday agreed that federal mask mandates were no longer needed during a contentious Senate hearing that veered off its mission of evaluating federal payroll support for the industry.

“The case is very strong that masks don’t add much in the air cabin environment,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told lawmakers during a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing. “I concur,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker added.

Instead, the witnesses, which in addition to Kelly and Parker included United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and Delta Air Lines commercial chief John Laughter, touted the advanced ventilation systems on modern aircraft, which change the cabin air as many as 30 times per hour. Aircraft cabins, in fact, refresh cabin air more often than hospital intensive care units, Kirby added. Cabin air is safer, in terms of Covid-19 transmission, than any other indoor venue, because not only is it refreshed but it is more thoroughly filtered, the executives said.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, advocated in favor of continued masking, telling lawmakers that masks offer an additional layer of protection on top of the cabin air filtration systems. “I believe the government has taken a very responsible approach to this,” Nelson said. “We look forward to the day when we can vaccinate the world.”

And it was on that issue that the sparks began to fly. A trio of Republican senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida, and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — hammered Kirby on United’s strict vaccine requirement, which the carrier imposed in August. United’s policy requires all employees in customer-facing roles to be vaccinated. United does consider exemptions, but will move employees from customer-facing roles to other jobs if they are not inoculated.

Cruz called United’s policy “deeply disturbing” and said the airline showed a “callous disregard for pilots,” and claimed many pilots and flight attendants have complained to him about the policy. Scott piled on, questioning whether the airline “respects employees’ religious beliefs.” And Blackburn noted that it seemed unwise for United to terminate employees when the airline industry is facing a labor shortage.

‘Safety Not Just Our North Star’

Kirby refused to back down in the face of this onslaught. “My number one priority is safety,” he said. “Safety is not just our North Star, it’s the only star that guides us on our vaccination policy.”

“I made the decision for United that getting everyone vaccinated has saved lives,” Kirby said. About 200 employees left United over the vaccine mandate, out of a U.S. workforce of more than 70,000 employees. Six of those were pilots, and an additional 80 pilots are on unpaid leave.

Delta has imposed a $200 health-insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees, while Southwest and American are requiring vaccines to comply with the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors, which is currently snarled in federal courts. All three have reported high employee vaccination rates, but they eluded the fury from Cruz, Scott, and Blackburn.

Not all lawmakers appreciated the Republicans’ outrage. “I am absolutely tired of this,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) “No one has the right to spread disease around.”

Peters and a bipartisan group of senators questioned why the airlines, after receiving more than $50 billion in federal aid, have trimmed flights to smaller cities. The simple answer is a pilot shortage. Regional airlines have faced a looming pilot shortage for a decade, since the federal government imposed stricter training requirements in the wake of the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2009. “During the pandemic, it became a shortage,” Kirby said, adding that United has had to ground 100 regional aircraft due to a lack of pilots.

“It’s going to be an issue for us to serve smaller communities unless we can find enough pilots for the regional airlines,” Parker said.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) referred to Kirby’s appearance at the Skift Aviation Forum on Nov. 17, where he said there was no logical replacement for the 50-seat regional jet on some routes. “We are all on board with increasing supply [of pilots],” Baldwin said.

But increasing federal Essential Air Service funds, which subsidize routes to smaller cities, is not the answer. Both Parker and Kirby argued for using those funds to help offset pilot training costs. It can cost an aspiring pilot as much as $150,000 to be certified to fly for an airline, and those costs are not eligible for federal student loans. “Finding creative ways to finance pilot education is the only way we can support these small communities,” Kirby said.

The Labor Pain Point

Labor in general has been a pain point for the airline industry as it recovers from the pandemic. Airlines offered tens of thousands of employees voluntary separation or extended leaves of absence when demand plummeted at the pandemic’s outset. But they have been struggling to staff up ever since demand started to rebound during the summer. Kelly noted that Southwest has raised wages for entry-level airport employees but finds itself competing for talent with other industries. “It’s a difficult hiring environment,” he said. “Absenteeism is higher, more people are on leave, attrition is a bit higher — when you add them all together, it’s a different working environment than it was before the pandemic.”

And this, ostensibly, was the point of the hearing before it took a turn toward divisive issues like vaccine and mask mandates. Senators wanted to see if the billions in federal payroll support was money well spent. They asked the airline leaders why despite all that federal aid, airline still struggle with service disruptions and cancelled flights.

The problem isn’t that the aid was not well spent, Parker pointed out. It was that airlines didn’t have enough people on staff to handle the resurgence of demand. “We don’t have the ability to recover quickly [from bad weather and delays,” Parker said. “I think it will pass; it’s a different environment.”

But everyone — senators and industry witnesses — was in agreement that the federal Payroll Support Program was worth it, despite the occasional hiccough. “Without [payroll support] we likely would have had to shut down the airline till demand returned, which was probably earlier this year when vaccines became available,” Parker said. “That would have been cataclysmic,” both for the industry and for the country, he added.

Kelly was more to the point. “I can sum up PSP in two words: It worked.”

UPDATED: This story has been updated to more accurately convey AFA President Sara Nelson’s support of mask mandates.

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