‘I think it’s a great thing’: Southwest Airlines CEO celebrates the end of the plane mask mandate

A court ruling this week ended the federal mandate requiring people to wear masks on planes and other public transportation. Following the decision, American Airlines, Delta, and Southwest quickly announced that passengers and staff would no longer be asked to wear masks on their planes. 

Now, anyone on those flights can go maskless if they want to, and Southwest CEO Robert E. Jordan is all for it. 

“I think it’s a great thing,” Jordan told Fortune on Tuesday. “I’m just happy that our employees and customers have a choice now.”

Like other airlines, Southwest will allow employees and passengers to wear a mask, but will no longer enforce the rule for people who don’t. Jordan says that the new rulings are in line with how passengers feel about traveling at this stage of the pandemic.

“The data has told us over a long period of time here that customers are increasingly comfortable flying,” Jordan said, adding that removing mask requirements should bring even more people back to traveling. “Taking every barrier that we can out of the process to bring back our travelers is terrific, and here’s one more barrier down.”

He added that “high-profile altercations” that took place on airplanes because of the masking requirements would mostly disappear following the end of the company’s mask requirement. In 2021, one passenger who refused to wear a mask hit a Southwest flight attendant with his bags, and was fined $16,500.

“The vast majority of our employees, I think, are very happy that they now have a choice,” he said. “So I’m really happy for them.”

In a statement announcing the removal of the mask requirement, Southwest emphasized that the decision to unmask would come down to the individual traveler. 

“What we’re talking about here is choice,” Jordan said.  

The Biden administration announced on Tuesday evening that it would appeal the court ruling throwing out the mask mandate.

“The Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) disagree with the district court’s decision and will appeal, subject to CDC’s conclusion that the order remains necessary for public health,” the Justice Department wrote in a statement.

Although COVID infection rates are nowhere near where they were earlier during the pandemic, they have recently gone up. The number of reported cases in the U.S. jumped nearly 20% the week of April 13, according to the CDC, compared to the previous week. 

Cases have been rising, but hospitalizations have remained relatively low. During the week of April 6, an average of 1,446 patients were admitted to U.S. hospitals each day with COVID-19 symptoms, according to CDC data, slightly up from the 1,427 patients admitted the week prior.

“So far we don’t see a rise in hospitalizations,” Jordan said.

The U.S. has fairly robust vaccination rates, although a portion of the population has not. As of April 13, 65.8% of the total U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. However, children under five are not eligible for the vaccine, and they can be less effective on people who are immunocompromised.

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