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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly tests positive for COVID-19 after appearing at Senate committee hearing

An airline executive who argued for lifting the onboard mask mandate at a Senate hearing Wednesday has tested positive for COVID-19.

Southwest Airlines said in a statement CEO Gary Kelly had tested negative multiple times before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing, at which he appeared unmasked with the CEOs of United and American.

"Gary tested positive for COVID-19 after returning home, experiencing mild symptoms, and taking a PCR test," the company said in the statement, noting the executive is fully vaccinated and has received a booster. "Gary's symptoms continue to be mild, and each day he is moving closer to a full recovery."

Kelly had told the oversight committee during Wednesday's hearing that an airliner's air filtration system is very safe, arguing in favor of lifting the federal mask mandate on board flights.

"The case is very strong that masks don't add much if anything in the air cabin environment," he said to the committee. "It's very safe, and very high quality compared to any other indoor setting."

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, who sat next to Kelly during the hearing, has so far tested negative, the airline said. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, who was on the other side of Kelly, is symptom free, fully vaccinated and getting tested this afternoon, according to that airline.

Delta said Friday that Chief of Operations John Laughter "tested negative today as well as yesterday. He will continue to test and take other precautions as necessary." 

The Transportation Security Administration extended the federal mask mandate on airplanes until January. But as of Monday, more than 4,000 incidents of unruly passenger behavior related to mask-wearing had been reported, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. The FAA has requested more than $1 million in civil fines for passengers accused of unruly — and sometimes violent — behavior as part of its zero-tolerance approach, and airlines have banned thousands of people in the last year.

On Wednesday, a man was kicked off a United Airlines flight in Florida for wearing a red thong as a mask to highlight what he said was the "absurdity" of forcing passengers to wear masks on planes.

Kathryn Krupnik contributed to this report.

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