Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said said passengers "should" fly during the coronavirus pandemic.
"You should fly," Kelly said in an interview with Axios. "We all need to be responsible, and we all need to be smart about what kind of personal interactions we have."
Kelly said the problem with getting coronavirus is "not being on the airplane," but rather what travelers do outside the air cabin.
About one million Americans traveled on airplanes the weekend before Thanksgiving, defying the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to stay home. The US has hit more than 12 million total COVID-19 cases, and a record 85,700 patients were hospitalized as of Tuesday.
Recent research finds that the virus can spread through the air indoors in spaces with poorly ventilated air. The outdoors or spaces that move outdoor air inside have fewer outbreaks than places like indoor restaurants and prisons. Kelly said airplanes recirculate air every few minutes and filter it through a "hospital-grade" filtration system.
But public health experts and scientists say there is still a big risk in air travel. One report in the journal Emerging Infectious Disease traced 16 coronavirus cases back to a single 10-hour flight, where 92% of passengers sitting near an infected passenger got sick.
Passengers do not simply drive up to the airplane before taking off — they must stand in TSA lines and airport crowds with strangers who may be carrying the virus. Travelers can minimize risk by physically distancing themselves from others, but recent photosshow airports are crowded with holiday travelers.
Blocking the middle seat helps create space between passengers, but Southwest Airlines will start filling all seats on December 1. The airline posted a $1.2 billion loss in the third quarter due to fewer people traveling during the pandemic, and announced the first layoff in its 53-year history would occur in January.
If patrons wear masks at all times during the flight, Kelly said travelers can further protect themselves. Masks, though highly effective, are not foolproof, which is why public health guidance has been to combine mask wearing with staying six feet apart from others.
Airplanes seats are close together, which makes physical distancing difficult for travelers.
"You just don't quite know who's on that plane, where they've been, and what their state is," Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, told Business Insider's Alesandra Dubin. "The mask affords a certain degree of protection, but there's no question there's going to be some risk with this situation, particularly the longer the flight is and the more crowded it is."
This article originally appeared on Business Insider