Exclusive: Delta CEO says federal government should issue a mask mandate

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines poses for a photo with Delta employees during an opening ceremony of Delta's new terminal at LaGuardia airport on October 29, 2019 in New York City. LaGuardia airport is in the process of rebuilding the entire airport while it is still functioning in an effort to create a world-class facility while not disrupting services. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, travelers are still not federally required to wear a mask on a passenger jet. But Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the government should make it a mandate.

He's not optimistic, however, that a national mask requirement will happen.

The airline industry has not issued a strong collective message asking the government to take that step, Bastian told CNN's Poppy Harlow for Boss FIles.

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"We've had those discussions with the White House," he said.

"I feel strongly about it," Bastian added. "But I'm not sure some of my peers and other airlines feel the same way. So as a practical matter, I'm not sure it's gonna happen."

The White House would not comment on the matter.

The vast majority — "99.9%," Bastian said — of Delta fliers are following the rules. But for the passengers that don't comply, enforcing the rule is tricky.

The rules were fairly lax in the early days of the pandemic, when few people were flying. Last month, US airlines moved to ban passengers from booking future travel if they did not wear masks, and all three major carriers said they have already done so for an undisclosed number of customers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone "should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public" to reduce transmission and slow the spread of the coronavirus, which is highly contagious.

But President Donald Trump has consistently refused to wear a mask in public, even as the pandemic has worsened in the United States. (The White House has said that everyone who comes in contact with the President is tested for coronavirus regularly.) Some cities and states have begun implementing their own mask policies, but that and other pandemic-related health orders have faced strong backlash in conservative parts of the country.

"I think I can speak for corporate America: We're all frustrated with the politicization of safeguarding the health and well-being of our employees, as well as our customers," Bastian said.

He added that most Delta customers have been respectful when asked to wear a face covering. "We ask our customers to wear the mask, not only to safeguard themselves, but just as importantly safeguard others," Bastian said.

Delta's Covid-19 policies have been among the industry's strongest. Delta has said it will keep all middle seats empty on its planes at least through the end of September, parting ways with American Airlines and United, which have said that move does not keep passengers safer.

Bastion said Delta consulted with medical experts at the Mayo Clinic and Emory University in its decision making.

"I think it's a really important safety feature," he said. "Distance matters."

Airlines have been anxious to fill seats as the steep drop-off in air travel has left thousands of planes grounded. Bastian said he agreed with Warren Buffet's recent comments that airlines had too many planes in their fleets.

US carriers are bleeding millions of dollars a day, and, despite receiving billions in federal bailout money, the industry may lose thousands of jobs this fall. United warned 36,000 of its frontline workers they could be furloughed this fall.

Bastian said Delta is currently losing about $30 million a day, down from $100 million per day a few weeks ago. He added that Delta is facing potential layoffs, "but not nearly the level that United communicated."

But layoffs aren't inevitable, he said, because Delta knows there will be political fallout if the company accepts more money from the government and then lays off thousands more.

"That would be something that that airline would have to explain," Bastian said, "both to the government as well as to its employees and community."

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