Over the course of the pandemic, tourism- and travel-dependent businesses like airlines have suffered considerably. Unruly passengers enraged by mask mandates have caused chaos, and airlines are struggling to find employees. Lawmakers recognized the difficulty airlines were facing and chose to award the companies $54 billion in federal bailouts throughout the pandemic. The aid was meant to cover most of the payroll costs from March 2020 through September 2021.
On Dec. 15 of this year, Lawmakers brought the airline executives to Congress to explain how that money was spent and why the industry saw widespread cancellations despite this massive influx of government aid. Topics covered included staffing shortages, face masks, vaccines, and 5G.
Attendants at the hearing included the CEOs of United Airlines
Witnesses report that none of the executives wore face coverings to the hearing. Several executives testified during the hearing regarding the safety of air travel and the effectiveness of airplane filtration systems, suggesting that mask mandates aren't needed. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires masks on all commercial flights.
"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," Kelly said.
"I concur. An aircraft is the safest place you can be," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said. "It's true of all of our aircraft -- they all have the same HEPA filters and air flow."
Union President Sara Nelson contested the CEOs' statements, pointing out that older aircraft aren't equipped with HEPA systems.
Two days after the hearing, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly tested positive for COVID-19. He also reversed his position on mask mandates aboard planes, saying he had been "confused" during the hearing.
"To be clear, I and Southwest and along with [U.S. airline lobbying group] Airlines for America are all aligned and support the current federal mask mandate at airports and on airplanes," Kelly said. "The majority of our Employees and Customers have felt it has been an important layer of protection, and I certainly agree with that,"
"My apologies for any confusion!" Kelly added.
Parker has also issued a statement saying he had been responding to another speaker "and did not intend to cast doubt on the necessity of face masks on planes."
Since Kelly's infected status was announced, all of the other executives have reported negative test results.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby also made waves at the hearing, testifying that 5G and C-Band spectrum could disrupt or cancel 4% of daily air travel.
"Coming January 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, and this is not a debate."
Airline executives aren't the only ones concerned about the potential impact of C-Band. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new directives for aircraft relating to the possible interference caused by 5G wireless, but the FAA didn't give specific numbers.
The trade group representing major airlines, Airlines for America (A4A), was more exact, arguing that if the new rules from the FAA were applied in 2019, 345,000 passenger flights would have been canceled, along with more than 5,000 commercial flights.
According to Kirby, if 5G C-Band is widespread, then aircraft "could only do visual approaches essentially" whenever airports experience even moderately poor weather.
Adopting the FAA's directives "would be a catastrophic failure of government," Kirby later told reporters.
Aviation agencies and airline executives might agree that 5G is a risk to aircraft functionality, but there are some who say these directives and arguments aren't justified. Tech experts and wireless industry insiders have argued that there's no risk to aircraft from 5G.
"The aviation industry's fearmongering relies on completely discredited information and deliberate distortions of fact," wrote CTIA, a wireless trade group, in a report.
According to CTIA, 5G is already present in more than 40 countries and has not caused any aircraft disruptions.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been somewhat silent on this issue, instead asking airlines and wireless companies to sort it out themselves.