A Southwest Airlines jet lands at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois on January 28, 2021.
Scott Olson | Getty Images
U.S. airlines are increasingly divided over whether their flight attendants, pilots and other employees should be vaccinated against Covid-19.
United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines announced this month that their U.S. employees, a total of around 73,000 people, will need to be vaccinated against the virus. Alaska Airlines is considering a similar mandate for its 20,000 or so employees if the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval to one of the vaccines, a move expected next month.
Other airlines, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue Airways, have repeatedly said that they are encouraging but do not require staff to be vaccinated. However, Delta Air Lines requires that new employees be vaccinated.
Pilot unions for these airlines say vaccines should remain voluntary for their members. Following announcements by United and Hawaiian, airline unions that do not require vaccines said pilots expressed concern about what would happen if their airlines followed suit.
The concerns highlight potential challenges carriers could face in also mandating vaccinations. The airlines are all struggling with the recent increase in Covid cases in the US, as the Delta variant prevails and weighs on the demand for air travel – just as the ailing industry began to gain a foothold again.
More than a dozen large US companies have prescribed Covid vaccines for some or all of their employees.
A mandate “could bring an airline into conflict with its unions,” said Ben Baldanza, former CEO of Spirit Airlines.
However, higher Covid cases could affect airline reliability if enough employees are sick, at a time when they are already few and far between.
“You don’t want to touch the third rail, but you want to make sure you have an operation,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and former airline manager.
The latest announcements of vaccine mandates or their lack of vaccine mandates by the airlines have received criticism and praise from both sides on social media. Baldanza said he doesn’t think vaccine status will be a determining factor in booking flights.
Infections are increasing
At the same time, some unions argue that airlines could do more to boost vaccination rates, or urge pilots to use incentives such as extra vaccination time off, especially as the fast-spreading Delta variant is driving the new Covid-19 infections.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 15,000 pilots at American Airlines on Thursday, told members that weekly cases of Covid-19 among pilots have hit an “all-time high,” rising to 36 in the first week of August, double that number as before three weeks earlier.
According to the union, five pilots were hospitalized for Covid-19 on August 12.
“It’s worth noting that none of these pilots have been vaccinated against the virus,” the union’s aero-medical group said.
About 60% of American Airlines pilots are vaccinated, according to a union announcement earlier this month. More than 90% of United pilots are vaccinated, the airline said. United previously offered flight attendants and pilots incentives to get vaccinated.
Encouraging, not demanding
Southwest Airlines reiterated to staff last week that it has not changed its stance on encouraging, but not requiring, staff to be vaccinated.
But Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Casey Murray last week called on the company to discuss its vaccine plans and stated in a letter to the airline that its current policy is “obviously not set in stone”.
Murray told CNBC that some pilots have told the union that they are concerned about possible side effects from the gunshots, including long-term side effects that may take a while to show up and subsequent loss of paid sick leave or even their medical clearance issued to the Flying is required. The Senior Medical Advisor to the White House, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that “almost all” long-term vaccine side effects occur within the first two months of being vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Murray said the number of Covid cases among pilots is increasing but declined to provide numbers.
He said the company should establish guidelines and incentives that could include paying a federally mandated 48-hour wait for pilots to fly before they can fly after each dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
“Talking to the company will go a long way towards allaying those fears,” he said.
Murray noted in his letter that Southwest did not offer pilots incentives to vaccinate as Delta, American, and United did, such as extra time off or extra pay. Offering around $ 15 worth of points on an internal platform was “undoubtedly less effective than the real incentives negotiated by the other airlines with their unions,” he wrote to the company, according to a person familiar with the matter .
“Now that we are facing the escalation of the Delta variant crisis, this will prove significant,” he said.
Ed Bastian, Delta CEO, said last week a vaccine mandate would likely not increase vaccine rates, which he believes already account for about 75% of the company’s roughly 75,000 employees. He said five to ten percent of employees likely have a medical or religious exception for a vaccine.
The Atlanta-based airline announced to the Air Line Pilots Association last week of its intention to keep vaccines voluntary, according to a union memo.
“We understand that Covid vaccinations have become an emotional issue,” said the pilots union. “Although an overwhelming majority of the pilot group chose the Covid vaccine, please don’t let this issue become a distraction on the flight deck.”
JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said the New York airline is “reviewing” a vaccination mandate and debating with unions and employees, but the company is “right now” strongly encouraging employees to get vaccinated.
“I think it’s better that people get vaccinated because they want to get vaccinated,” Hayes said in an interview last week. “I think once the US government [fully] approved [the vaccines]”I think that will bring a huge increase in the number of people being vaccinated.” Pfizer and Moderna both received conditional approval to distribute their vaccines in an emergency in December, pending full approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer’s Covid vaccine is expected to receive full approval in a few weeks.
The union representing the JetBlue pilots said, “We are certainly all ready for the COVID-19 pandemic to come to an end, but there shouldn’t be any rash decisions affecting our pilots and their ability to make private medical decisions with their healthcare provider to meet potentially jeopardizing consultation, “the Air Line Pilots Association’s JetBlue chapter wrote to members last week.
Frontier Airlines said its employees who refuse to be vaccinated would instead have to test regularly for Covid. United, on the other hand, said employees will be fired if they refuse to get the syringes, although there are exceptions for medical or religious reasons.
Mike Klemm, president of the International Association of Machinists District 141, which, among other things, represents around 28,000 customer and ramp service employees at United, estimates that around a third of them are rejecting the mandate.
“That 35% is much louder than the 65%,” he said, adding that while United asked for a lawsuit against the company, it was “in their legal right.”
United is offering a day off for vaccinated workers, but Klemm said it should offer more.
“If they increased the incentive, more people would be attracted to get the vaccine,” he said. “I understand what the company is trying to do, but they should have just given incentives … instead of intimidating people.”
United CEO Scott Kirby told CNN last week that most of the feedback he has received from employees on the move has been positive.
“It’s a highly explosive decision,” said aeronautical advisor Mann. “One way or another, you invite criticism.”