By John McDermott
U.S. Airlines Split On Future of Vaccine Requirements
When the coronavirus became a global pandemic in the winter of 2020, airlines globally were devastated by plummeting passenger counts. Carriers lost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars daily, and many were counting the days until a vaccine was approved so that passengers could be inoculated and would subsequently feel comfortable traveling again.
Yet eight months after the first vaccines were granted emergency authorization in the U.S., only half of the country is fully vaccinated, and there is a noticeable split between people who rushed to get a shot and those who stand strong against ever receiving a dose.
This split poses a number of problems for airlines, most the most visible being that waves of virus infections will continue to pop up among people who aren’t vaccinated, making government leaders hesitant to lift restrictions and open borders.
However, a new problem is beginning to rise: the split between airlines who will require employees to be vaccinated and the carriers who will not.
United Airlines was the first airline to announce that it will require all employees to be vaccinated. Though new hires were required to be vaccinated starting earlier this summer, now all U.S.-based employee at United will need to get two shots by mid October, affecting 67,000 active employees.
Employees will need to provide proof of full vaccination withing five weeks of a vaccine’s full approval by the FDA or Oct. 25, whichever is first. Employees who provide such proof by Sept. 20 will receive a bonus of a full day’s pay, excluding pilots and flight attendants, who have negotiated different incentives for vaccination through their unions.
Employees who fail to comply will be terminated. United notes that this is the same consequence a pilot would face for failing to follow a critical safety requirement that is a core part of their job. Exemptions will be granted for religious and health reasons.
“The facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated,” United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart wrote in a letter to employees. “Over the last 16 months, Scott has sent dozens of condolences letters to the family members of United employees who have died from COVID-19. We’re determined to do everything we can to try to keep another United family from receiving that letter.”
Frontier Airlines was soon to follow United with an announcement of their own. The budget carrier will require all of its direct employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 1.
“As we continue to watch the rapid increase of new COVID-19 cases across the United States caused by the Delta variant, I am concerned for the well-being of our team members, their families and friends. Safety is of the utmost importance at Frontier and we need to take every step possible for us to keep our teams safe, protect the operation and protect our passengers. The time has come to do what we can to help put an end to COVID-19,” says Frontier CEO Barry Biffle.
Unlike United, Frontier will not fire any employees who do not get a vaccine but instead will require a negative COVID test on “a regular basis” and is working with its unions to establish long-term COVID testing protocols.
Many are happy with these mandates, saying that they improve safety and promote healthy environments for employees and passengers alike. Crew vaccinations also may reduce the likelihood of international outbreaks in the future, as pilots and flight attendants who fly internationally will be less likely to spread the coronavirus at out stations both because they are less likely to get sick and carry the virus across borders and because vaccinated people who are sick often have less viral loads than unvaccinated infected people, making spread more unlikely.
“If we look at who’s traveling now and compare that to a year ago, I mean, you’ve got massive numbers of travelers and people didn’t travel a year ago – it wasn’t fares being too expensive or anything else – they were scared to fly, and the vaccinations made them feel safe and that’s what got people back out traveling. We believe it is the vast majority of everyone who is traveling today is vaccinated,” Biffle said.
Yet the mandates are still controversial. Though many airlines may encourage employees to be vaccinated, none have required inoculation. American and Delta have both offered incentives like extra vacation days and bonuses for employees who are vaccinated, but both have stopped short of full requirements. Southwest Airlines “strongly encourages” employees to be vaccinated, and Alaska Airlines will require employees to tell the company whether they are vaccinated.
Delta has, however, required all new hires to show full proof of vaccination. It has also opened vaccination sites for employees, and the company says 73% of its workforce is vaccinated.
“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” Kirby and Hart wrote in their letter. “But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.”
Despite its affirmation that the mandate is legal, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) says that United’s decision should have come out of labor negotiations.While it urges employees and passengers to get shots, Spirit Airlines says it has no plans to require vaccinations for either group.
United notes that more than 50 medical groups support vaccine requirements, but without full approval from the FDA, requiring vaccination walks a fine line. United’s ALPA union says it believes the airline’s requirement is legal, but American’s Allied Pilots Association union maintains pilots’ rights to make a decision on vaccinations for themselves.
United’s vaccine mandate could cause major staffing problems for the company. The Chicago Tribune reports that United had 12,000 pilots on staff as of April 2021. And while United reports that 90% of them are vaccinated, that leaves up to 1,200 pilots who could be out of the company by the end of October, as ALPA says that some pilots still object to vaccines. That could create staffing issues similar to what American and Spirit Air lines have faced in recent days as United needs to replace thousands of pilots to operate flights.
United and Frontiers’ mandates could be seen as a benefit for passengers. Delta Air Lines, for example, blocked middle seats and capped flight occupancy for the longest of any U.S. airline as a safety selling point for customers concerned about virus transmission onboard a plane. United and Frontier could use their vaccine requirements as selling points for passengers who want to make sure they can fly as safely as possible.
It’s also not impossible that select unvaccinated passengers decide to move away from airlines requiring employees to get shots for as long as possible, potentially leading to a rise in incidents on other airlines should mask mandates continue. Rises in violent incidents on flights over the past year have been attributed in part to passengers refusing to put on masks, even when pressed by crewmembers.
No airline has yet to call for vaccine requirements for passengers, and it seems unlikely they ever will save possibly international flights to select countries based on government entry requirements. Considering that airlines do not currently call for vaccinations against other diseases, setting a precedent now could prove difficult and drive passengers away.
“It’s very difficult for us to come in and mandate a vaccine that isn’t even federally approved yet, the authorization hasn’t been final yet, so stay tuned,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said, per CNBC. “We’re continuing to encourage as much as we can amongst our own people and our customers to get vaccinated. The numbers are picking up.”
Of course, there is the question of at what point, if ever, the United States, and other countries, will decide to simply move on from the pandemic and let the coronavirus run its course. Bastian said that its flights were more than 90% full last weekend and added that people are “learning how to manage and live” with the coronavirus pandemic. With a majority of most major U.S. airlines’ staffs vaccinated by their own reporting and many passengers vaccinated and/or masked, there is a question of the extent to which companies will ease their requirements once they’re legally allowed to.
In the meantime, airlines are still encouraging passengers to get vaccinated and wear their masks, especially amid a rise in violence onboard aircraft from passengers who do not want o wear face coverings. Frontier is even offering 10,000 bonus miles for fully-vaccinated passengers who book by August 31 as well as offering free tickets for a fully-vaccinated second friend for all travelers who prove they have been vaccinated.
Despite being the first airline to require vaccinations, United said in the winter that it would wait for other companies to require vaccines before taking action. It joins Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Walmart, Netflix, Walt Disney Co and Tyson Foods, among others, in requiring vaccines for all workers and visitors in office and production spaces starting in the fall. The governments of California and New York City will require their employees to either get vaccinated or get tested weekly.