A Southwest Airlines jet lands at Midway International Airport on January 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.

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U.S. airlines are increasingly divided over whether to require their flight attendants, pilots and other employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines this month said their U.S. employees, a total of some 73,000 people, must get vaccinated against the virus. Alaska Airlines said it’s considering a similar mandate for its some 20,000 employees if the Food and Drug Administration gives one of the vaccines full approval, a step that’s expected next month.

Other carriers, including Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have repeatedly said they are encouraging, but aren’t requiring that staff are vaccinated. Delta Air Lines requires new hires to be vaccinated, however.

Labor unions for pilots at those airlines say vaccines should remain voluntary for their members. After announcements from United and Hawaiian, unions at airlines that aren’t mandating vaccines said pilots reached out with concerns about what would happen if their carriers followed suit.

Delta variant

Infections on the rise

Encouraging, not requiring

Southwest Airlines last week reiterated to employees that it has not changed its stance on encouraging, but not requiring, that employees are vaccinated.

But the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s president, Casey Murray, last week urged the company to discuss its vaccine plans, stating in a letter to the carrier that its current policy “clearly is not set in stone.”

Murray told CNBC that some pilots have told the union they worry about potential side effects to the shots, including long-term ones that may take a while to surface, and a subsequent loss of paid sick time, or even their medical clearance needed to fly. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that “virtually all” long-term side effects from vaccines are seen within the first two months after getting a shot.

Meanwhile, Murray said Covid case counts are going up among pilots but declined to provide numbers.

Company incentives

Voluntary vaccines

The Atlanta-based airline told the Air Line Pilots Association last week of “its intention to keeping vaccines voluntary,” according to a union memo.

“We understand Covid vaccinations have become an emotional issue,” the pilot union said. “While an overwhelming majority of the pilot group has chosen to receive the Covid vaccine, please do not allow this issue to become a distraction in the flight deck.”

JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes said the New York airline is “looking at” a vaccine mandate and discussing with unions and employees but that “at the moment” the company is strongly encouraging staff to get vaccinated.

“I think its better that people get vaccinated because they want to get vaccinated,” Hayes said in an interview last week. “I think once the U.S. government [fully] approves [the vaccines], I think that’s going to see a big lift in people getting vaccinated.” Pfizer and Moderna were both given conditional approval to distribute their vaccines on an emergency basis in December and are awaiting full approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer’s Covid vaccine is expected to win full approval first, within in a few weeks.

The union that represents JetBlue’s pilots said: “We are certainly all ready for the COVID-19 pandemic to reach its end, but there should be no rushed decisions that potentially compromise our pilots and their ability to make private medical decisions with their health care provider’s consultation,” the JetBlue chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association wrote to members last week.

Frontier Airlines said its employees who don’t want to be vaccinated must instead test regularly for Covid. United, on the other hand, said employees will be terminated if they refuse to get the shots, though there are also exceptions for medical or religious reasons.

More incentives

Mike Klemm, president of the International Association of Machinists District 141, which represents about 28,000 customer and ramp service workers at United, among other employees, estimates that about a third of them oppose the mandate.

“That 35% is much louder than the 65%,” he said, adding that while some have asked about suing the company, United is “within their legal right.”

United is offering a day off for workers who get vaccinated but Klemm said it should offer more.

“If they increased the incentive then more people would be enticed to get the vaccine,” he said. “I understand what the company is trying to do but they should have just offered incentives … instead of intimidating people.”

United’s CEO Scott Kirby told CNN last week that most of the feedback he has received from employees about the measure was positive.

“It’s a highly charged decision,” said Mann, the aviation consultant. “You invite criticism either way.”


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Airlines split on whether to require employees to get Covid shots