Unions representing pilots at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are asking for exemptions to President Joe Biden’s pending vaccine mandate, saying that holiday travel could be disrupted otherwise, according to Politico.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 14,000 pilots at American Airlines, wrote a letter to federal officials suggesting that mandatory vaccinations could cause widespread interference across the aviation industry.
“To ensure commercial aviation’s ongoing viability by avoiding a scenario in which airlines are forced to either offer unpaid leaves of absence or, worse, implement mass termination of unvaccinated pilots, it is essential that an alternate means of compliance…be made available for professional pilots,” Capt. Eric Ferguson, president of the association, wrote in the letter.
Earlier this month, Biden announced that COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory for employees of federal contractors and companies with more than 100 workers. Under either order, airlines would be subject to a vaccine mandate, Politico reported.
The APA and other groups are asking for other protocols, such as regular testing or proof of natural immunity, while allowing unvaccinated pilots to fly. APA said some of its members are “unable to undergo vaccination for documented medical reasons” and others are reluctant to get vaccinated based on concerns about the “potential for career-ending side effects.”
“All of those members are still able to perform their duties as professional pilots,” Ferguson wrote. “To force those pilots out of their positions, rather than offering viable alternatives, will have adverse consequences upon their families and the airline industry as a whole.”
The 60-day implementation period under Biden’s order could also lead to labor shortages and “create serious operational problems,” Ferguson wrote. That includes the upcoming holidays, when a large number of travelers are expected to board flights and visit others.
“Airlines generate a substantial portion of their annual revenue during the holiday period, with a great many travelers depending on us to get them to their destinations,” he wrote. “Our nations’ airlines, and the traveling public, cannot afford significant service disruptions due to labor shortages.”
Echoing the language from the APA letter, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association told Politico that its members are also concerned about a vaccine mandate.
“SWAPA’s stance is that it is each pilot’s right to choose whether or not to get the vaccine,” the association wrote. “We are also concerned that the Executive Order’s anticipated 60-day implementation period…could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems.”
United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines have mandated vaccines for workers and set strict limits for those who request exemptions, Politico reported. American and Southwest have encouraged but not mandated employees to get vaccinated. Delta Air Lines is adding a $200 per month surcharge onto the company’s health care plan for unvaccinated workers, which is meant to cover testing and hospitalization costs.
So far, the mandate seems to be working for United, Politico reported. This week, the airline said 98.5% of its 67,000 employees are now vaccinated.
At the same time, United is facing two separate lawsuits over its vaccine mandate, according to ABC 7 Chicago. In one case, an employee said their religious exemption wasn’t accommodated.
In another lawsuit, six employees — including two pilots and a flight attendant — claimed the airline had a “pattern of discrimination” against employees who requested religious or medical accommodations. They added that the airline’s policy of putting exempt employees on an indefinite leave of absence means “they would be effectively terminated.”
In response, United said it will stand by its policy.
“We will continue to vigorously defend our policy — vaccine requirements have been around for decades and have served to keep airline employees and customers safe,” the airline wrote in a statement. “And with the pandemic continuing to kill more than 2,000 people every day, we remain convinced that our vaccine policy saves lives.”
Politico: “Texas airline pilots warn that vaccine mandates could roil holiday flights.”
Allied Pilots Association: “APA president letter on Sept. 24, 2021.”
ABC 7 Chicago: “Employees sue United Airlines over COVID vaccine mandate.”