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Worker vaccine mandates: will airlines require vaccinations?

Airline companies are divided about whether to impose a vaccine mandate for staff as fears continue to rise over the spread of the Delta variant.

A Southwest Airline pilot checks his plane from the cockpit window at a gate of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on December 10, 2017
Daniel SLimAFP

Many organizations across the US are beginning to impose the stick over the carrot, as vaccination makeup in the country has slowed to a crawl. Airline companies are the next to impose mandates, and the move has been criticized by some pilots. However, pilot unions have supported the move and encouraged staff to be vaccinated. Roughly 60% of American Airlines’ pilots are vaccinated, according to a union note from earlier this month. More than 90% of United’s pilots are vaccinated, the carrier said.

What is being proposed?

Different companies are having different rules for their workers.

United Airlines is requiring all US-based employees to get vaccinated, and provide proof of their vaccination, either five weeks after federal approval or by October 25, whichever comes first, the company announced in a note to employees on August 6.

Hawaiian Airlines said their staff must be vaccinated.

Alaska Airlines is considering the  move once the FDA fully approves one of the available vaccines.

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

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Why are they doing it?

It's crucial for airline companies to end the pandemic, as they are the most affected by travel bans and restrictions. The US is currently not allowing entry from many countries around the world due to high covid-19 levels. A covid-19-free planet would boost the profit margins of these companies considerably, so it's in their best interest for as many people to be vaccinated as possible.

What have unions said?

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents United’s more than 12,000 aviators, believes the mandate is legal. It said the “small number of pilots” who don’t agree with the policy or plan to remain unvaccinated should contact their chief pilot’s office.

Flight attendants’ labor union, the Association of Flight Attendants, urged cabin crew members to get vaccinated after United Airline's announcement.

What risks does the Delta variant pose?

The variant has a high viral load, meaning people can become infected after a shorter contact with someone already infected. It is estimated that the viral load of Delta is 1260 times more than variants from the beginning of the pandemic. Health guidance says there is a risk of infection even with people outdoors for no more than five minutes, and that even people vaccinated should wear masks indoors. The CDC also states that Delta is twice as contagious as the Alpha variant first sequenced in the UK, which was itself twice as infectious as the original covid-19 strain.

What this means in practice is rising hospitalizations and deaths. Data from the week beginning July 28 shows nationwide hospitalizations rose by 40% from the week prior, to a seven-day average of 7,707. Hospitalizations have been rising since late June, and are at their steepest rise since November 2020.