The timer is counting down for airlines when it comes to COVID vaccine mandates, and what’s frustrating for many is that nobody is quite sure when the alarm will ring. With rhetoric ramping up, it is becoming increasingly clear that the early, decisive move by United to require vaccines for all employees was the right way to go. Other airlines are quickly finding out that hemming and hawing is only going to make life difficult.
On August 6, United took a pretty gutsy step by announcing that it would require all employees to be vaccinated or risk being fired. At the time, United said that 90 percent of pilots and 80 percent of flight attendants were vaccinated, but it didn’t give a full company number. The mandate would take effect on either October 25 or five weeks after the first vaccine received full FDA approval, whichever came first. When Pfizer received the approval, that set the drop dead date as September 27.
At the time, it was unclear how this would be received. Sure, the medical community and all vaccinated people would be happy about it. But — and I don’t need to tell anyone — there has been vaccine resistance in many parts of the US, and there was always the possibility that this could backfire on the airline. No other airline was mandating it as stiffly, and the government had not stepped in either. But by going early, United took a stand and gave employees more time to think about their choices.
Things started to unfold rather quickly after that, especially when the Pfizer vaccine gained approval. Delta and Alaska meekly tried to take a middle ground where they wouldn’t fire people but there would be punishments involved. And Southwest and American just punted, giving only meager incentives to encourage vaccination.
When the federal government came along with its vaccine requirement, that should have sealed the deal in the airline industry. Yes, it required companies with over 100 people to either require vaccines or put a testing mandate in place, but it didn’t offer the testing option to companies that wanted to remain government contractors. If the airlines want to keep that sweet, sweet government money flowing, they need to comply… eventually. It appears that new contractors have until December 8, but for existing contractors, it is not yet clear. Regardless, that date is coming. It’s just a matter of when.
For United, this was just a validation of its original strategy all along. The airline began to further clarify its policy by creating a path for those with medical or religious exemptions. Those with exemptions would all be put on leave this week, though that has been delayed a bit due to a pending lawsuit. Still, the company has been completely clear about where it stands, and employees have responded.
By September 22, United had more than 97 percent of US-based employees vaccinated. On Tuesday, it said that excluding those with approved exemptions, the airline was now above 99 percent. As an internal memo from CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart puts it:
… for the less than 1% of people who decided to not get vaccinated, we’ll unfortunately begin the process of separation from the airline per our policy. This was an incredibly difficult decision but keeping our team safe has always been our first priority. The pandemic is now killing more than 2,000 people per day – a 65% increase in just the past 30 days – and the most effective way to keep our people safe, is to make sure they’re vaccinated.
This impacts fewer than 600 people out of 67,000 at the airline. While it’s a shame those people will have to find work elsewhere, it has been clear for nearly two months that this was going to happen. And United will not skip a beat in finding new hires. According to a United spokesperson:
… all new hires must be vaccinated. Last month at a career fair in Denver, we received 700 applications for about 400 job postings. For flight attendants alone, we’ve gotten more than 20,000 applications for about 2,000 open positions. Some of the most qualified candidates volunteered that they were especially interested in career opportunities at United because of the vaccine requirement and what it says about the airline’s commitment to the safety of employees.
Additionally – we received more than 7,500 applications for our pilot training school, Aviate Academy, and all students at Aviate must be vaccinated as well.
In other words, the airline is not going to face any disruptions, and it will move forward easily. The same cannot necessarily be said for other airlines.
I could also point to Southwest, but American is probably the easiest example of what a wishy washy stance can do to an airline. It has encouraged employees to get vaccinated by offering an extra vacation day and a $50 credit for company rewards. That’s it.
The word from management has been pretty non-committal as well. CEO Doug Parker has said things like “If indeed the mandate now is everyone must be vaccinated or … tested once a week, we will obviously comply by that mandate.” And, “all along, as we’ve been going through this, we have been considering mandates and may have done one on our own. But what we wanted to do was do everything we could first to encourage everyone to do so.” And don’t forget, “Up to this point, we haven’t put people in that position of having to choose whether or not they are vaccinated or employed. That’s coming, though.”
All this has done is emboldened employee groups to try and fight against getting the vaccines while also trying to use it as a bargaining chip. American’s pilots released a startling number this week saying that 4,200 of the 14,000 pilots at the airline remain unvaccinated. And as for the mechanics at the massive Tulsa base? Well, have a look at this video from the president of Local 514.
If you don’t want to watch, the description will sum it up for you:
Do you want the President of the United States in your Health?
Do you want your employer to fire you over the vaccination?
We should send one voice to them “HELL NO, YOU WILL NOT FORCE US TO TAKE A SHOT.”
Except, as he admits in the video, it will be an “uphill battle” to get away from the mandate. So, this is going to just get uglier and uglier. We don’t know details on when the mandate will come into place, but simply waiting for it to happen is asking for trouble. Then again, at this point, American probably has no other choice since its unions have started to mobilize.
United got ahead of this, and it is now a non-issue for the airline. American keeps kicking the can, presumably until the date when it knows it has no choice, whenever that may be. Could this result in operational disruption? Sure, but for now it’s mostly just resulting in bad press at a time when people are thinking more about holiday travel.
United has shown that a strong, firm leadership stance can get a massive company to the end goal. American and others would rather play with fire.