Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly has tested positive for Covid-19, days after a U.S. Senate hearing with other industry executives during which he appeared to downplay the effectiveness of face masks on planes. 

Kelly, 66, “recently tested positive for Covid-19 after experiencing mild symptoms and taking a PCR test,” the Dallas-based airline said Friday in a statement, referring to an analysis that checks for genetic material from the virus.

The test came after Kelly’s appearance in Washington Wednesday, a spokesperson said. It also followed a trip to New York last week in which Kelly spoke to a packed audience at the Wings Club in Manhattan and met with groups of employees and others. He also met with Bloomberg News reporters and editors in New York and appeared on CNBC.

Kelly is the first known CEO of a major U.S. airline to contract the virus, and his infection comes at a time when Southwest and others have ramped up capacity to meet domestic leisure demand that’s back to pre-pandemic levels at many carriers. Telecom giant Verizon Communications Inc. said earlier this week that its CEO, Hans Vestberg, tested positive recently.

Southwest’s CEO, who is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot, has mild symptoms and is doing well, the company said. Kelly garnered attention for his comments during the Senate hearing on the requirement for masks during flights, saying the hospital-like filtration systems remove most virus cells from the air on planes.

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

While Kelly’s comments led some to conclude he believed face coverings were unnecessary during flight, the executive on Friday clarified those remarks in a note to employees by saying he agrees that masks have added an important layer of protection. 

“We’ll continue to rely on the advice of our medical experts” regarding the need for them, he said, and there’s no effort underway to change the federal mask mandate before it expires on March 18.

A study last year by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which was funded in part by the airline industry, concluded risks of transmitting Covid-19 were low on an airliner, but said passengers and crew should wear masks at all times. The study was conducted before the delta and omicron strains emerged.

Getting Tested

Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that Kelly testified before, said Friday she is getting tested. The status of the other Democratic members wasn’t immediately clear. Alexis DeJarnette, a spokeswoman for the committee’s Republicans, said in an email she wasn’t aware of any who had tested positive.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. CEO Scott Kirby and Delta Air Lines Inc. Chief of Operations John Laughter, who also testified, both have tested negative, the carriers said. American Airlines Group Inc. CEO Doug Parker, who sat next to Kelly, is fully vaccinated but plans to get tested Friday afternoon, the company said. 

A spokeswoman for Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union, who joined the airline executives before the Senate committee, didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry on her status.