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Southwest CEO Gary Kelly tests positive for coronavirus after Senate hearing

Date: December 17, 2021

By Michael Laris, Washington Post

Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly tested positive for the coronavirus, the company announced Friday, two days after he testified at a Senate hearing in Washington.

Kelly sat beside senior executives from competing airlines and a top labor leader, none of whom wore masks while facing questions from members of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Southwest said Kelly, who was vaccinated and had received a booster, tested negative multiple times before the hearing, but tested positive after getting home. He has mild symptoms and “each day he is moving closer to a full recovery,” the airline said, adding that he is “following all notification procedures.”

Among those who received word was Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, who sat three seats away during the hearing.

“I was advised by Gary Kelly shortly after he tested positive and, ironically, just as I was returning to work after getting the booster shot,” said Nelson, whose union represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants.

Nelson said she is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols and will test several times over the next week before traveling with family for the holidays.

Senate officials did not immediately respond to questions about exposure concerns. Southwest did not say when or how Kelly believes he was exposed.

Committee chairwoman Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told reporters she is being tested. She said she wasn’t sitting near Kelly although they might have fist-bumped after the hearing was over. Cantwell encouraged people to get vaccinated and to continue to follow safety measures.

During the hearing, Kelly was pressed on when he believed masks would no longer be required on planes. He and other executives spoke of the high frequency and effectiveness of filtration systems commonly used on planes.

“I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything, in the air cabin environment. It’s very safe, very high quality, compared to any other indoor setting,” Kelly said.

Nelson said at the hearing that the mask requirement should remain in effect. She said it remained a workplace safety issue, and she was troubled by the inconsistent messaging on masking. The issue has contributed to increased cases of unruly behavior that have left flight attendants in difficult and sometimes dangerous roles as enforcers.

On Thursday, Federal Aviation Administration administrator Steve Dickson tweeted that dangerous passenger behavior on airplanes could lead to major fines or jail time, adding: “Wear a mask, respect the crew and follow their instructions. They are there for your safety.”

After learning of Kelly’s diagnosis, Nelson appealed to passengers to “Get vaxxed, wear a mask and be kind!”

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