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American, Southwest say vaccine mandate won’t disrupt flights

Airlines say they don’t anticipate having to immediately fire employees not vaccinated by a federal deadline in December, another challenge for carriers managing travel’s rocky recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Major airlines, which conduct business with the federal government, must require their workers to be vaccinated by Dec. 8 under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in September pertaining to federal contractors.

Some aviation unions have pushed back on the strict requirement, raising the prospect of disruptions during the busy holiday season because of staffing shortages.

Executives with American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. said Thursday that they plan to allow employees with approved medical or religious reasons for avoiding vaccinations to continue working. Both companies have also said employees who have pending requests for accommodations that haven’t been resolved by the Dec. 8 deadline will be able to continue working while they wait to hear.

“We want our employees to know that nobody is going to lose their job on December 9 if we’re not perfectly in compliance,” Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said Thursday. “It is a work in progress, and we’re going to continue working in good faith to meet the requirements of the executive order.”

“We don’t expect anybody to leave American Airlines,” American President Robert Isom said Thursday.

The process the carriers described appeared consistent with existing guidance for federal employees, a White House spokesman said.

Vaccine requirements have become divisive and complex for companies to navigate as they manage diverse employee bases with a range of views and look to avoid staffing snarls in an already tight labor market. Airlines face the added difficulties stemming from a faster-than-expected rise in travel demand this year, which has strained their operations and exposed staffing shortages.

Airline executives have been divided on the best approach to getting employees vaccinated.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. was early to impose a strict mandate before the government did. American and Southwest are among the carriers that had hoped to avoid imposing strict rules around vaccination, and both have faced protests from employees since they said employees would have to comply with the government’s requirements.

Mr. Kelly said that while he favors vaccination, he is sympathetic with those who oppose mandates and doesn’t believe it is Southwest’s place to order employees to be vaccinated. But the government is Southwest’s biggest customer, Mr. Kelly said Thursday, so the airline has no choice but to follow its orders.

“We didn’t ask for the mandate, but we got it,” he said.

American CEO Doug Parker said Thursday that he has grown more confident in recent weeks that only a small number of people will either not be vaccinated or have a valid religious or medical exemption by the time the deadline arrives. American, like other carriers, has offered incentives such as extra vacation to persuade employees to get the shots.

“We’re going to be where the others are, which is virtually everyone vaccinated,” he said.

The union that represents pilots at American said vaccination rates have crept higher since the airline said it would follow the federal requirement, but there are still roughly 3,700 unvaccinated pilots.

United said in August that it would require all its employees to be vaccinated or face termination. The vast majority complied and the airline said that it began termination proceedings against roughly 230 employees.

About 2,000 of its employees asked to be exempt for religious or medical reasons. The carrier had planned to put those employees on unpaid leave, but some employees sued. A judge this week ordered the two sides to begin mediation to try to resolve the issue.

Airline executives said they haven’t received exact guidance about how employees who are approved for religious and medical exemptions will be accommodated. Mr. Parker, American’s CEO, said the airline expects to use some combination of testing, masks and social distancing for what he believes will be a relatively small number of exempt employees.

White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said this week that officials aren’t expecting holiday travel disruptions because of vaccine mandates for federal workers or airline employees.

“Vaccination requirements will not impact holiday travel,” he said, adding that federal workers who don’t comply will first go through a period of education and counseling.

Another wrinkle is that the regional airlines that form a backbone of the aviation system––operating sizable numbers of flights on behalf of major carriers––have generally not told employees they have to be vaccinated, airline executives said. American’s Mr. Parker said Thursday that regional airlines in many cases likely won’t be treated as contractors and could be subject to less-stringent requirements for large employers.

Delta Air Lines Inc. in November will start charging unvaccinated employees an extra $200 a month for company health insurance. That policy has spurred more employees to be vaccinated and about 90% of Delta’s workers have gotten the shots, CEO Ed Bastian said last week. Mr. Bastian said he expects the number to continue to climb and that Delta will be in compliance with the government’s rules.

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