Don’t expect all of your pilots, flight attendants, or airport workers to be vaccinated this holiday travel season despite Biden’s vaccine mandates

Masked American Airlines pilot
Airline workers may remain unvaccinated this holiday travel season despite a mandate from President Joe Biden. COOPER NEILL/AFP/Getty
  • Airlines are walking back plans to vaccinate their staff despite federal mandates requiring them to do so.
  • CEOs at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are indicating they won’t fire unvaccinated staff.
  • Around 3,700 American Airlines pilots remain unvaccinated with the holiday travel approaching.

The US airline industry is still reeling from President Joe Biden’s executive order mandating vaccines for federal contractors, including airlines. And despite recently announced vaccine mandates from some major airlines, travelers should be prepared to fly on airlines without vaccinated staff.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines both announced vaccine mandates for workers in early October, only to backpedal a few weeks later.

Southwest initially proposed placing unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave after December 8 but has since scrapped that plan, saying even those unvaccinated and without an approved exemption won’t be fired after the deadline passes.

“Employees who file for accommodation by the November 24 internal deadline will continue working past the December 8 federal deadline, while following all COVID mask and distancing guidelines, IF they have not received a final decision regarding their accommodation request by that date,” a Southwest spokesperson told Insider, adding that the strategy accounts for both a worker’s “effort to comply” and the time it takes to review an exemption.

American, for its part, is indicating that it will not immediately terminate or ground unvaccinated flight attendants without exemptions, according to the union representing 28,000 American flights attendants in an October 18 update.

Both airlines did not say how many workers remain unvaccinated or what will happen to those who remain unvaccinated without an exemption through the deadline.

Robert Isom, American’s president, only said that the “vast majority” of workers are vaccinated and a “minimal number” are expected to apply for exemptions. The Allied Pilots Association, the labor union representing 14,000 American Airlines pilots, currently estimates 3,700 pilots are unvaccinated, a spokesperson told Insider.

“Those that are [left unvaccinated] almost certainly will be on some sort of religious or medical exemption, and those that aren’t [exempted], we’ll continue to work with,” Doug Parker, American’s chief executive officer, told CNBC. “We don’t want to see anybody leaving American.”

Travelers taking to the skies for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, as a result, should not expect that every airline worker in airports or onboard planes will be fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated airline workers will remain past Biden’s December 8 deadline, whether with an exemption or without.

“There are airline workers who appear to just not want to be vaccinated and it’s unclear what their work status will be,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider. “The majority of airline workers will be vaccinated.”

Delta Air Lines, which hasn’t implemented a full mandate, says 90% of its workers are vaccinated. United has said more than 99% of its staff is vaccinated or has applied for exemptions.

The first airline to institute a vaccine mandate, United had proposed to place workers with exemptions on unpaid leave but a pending lawsuit is attempting to overturn that policy.

Southwest and American are particularly vulnerable to any lapses in staffing given recent meltdowns in which thousands of flights were canceled in the wake of extreme weather events and other operational disruptions.

“Neither [Southwest or American] can afford to lose a critical mass of their pilots or flight attendants,” Harteveldt said, describing critical mass to be as little as 10% of a workgroup.

Regional carriers have also not yet announced vaccine mandates for staff, even those engaged in federal contracts, partnered with airlines that have announced vaccine mandates, or wholly owned by airlines that are federal contractors.

“Between Delta, American, and United, none of the regional carriers that any of us use are working towards a vaccine mandate at this point because they’ve concluded they’re not covered by the mandate,” Parker said in an October 21 earnings call.

Mark Goldstein, a labor and employment attorney and partner at Reed Smith, told Insider that there’s a strong case for regional airlines to be considered subcontractors under the executive order.

“The guidance issued by the federal government, it’s fairly broad,” Goldstein said. “One could arguably take the position that it applies to any subcontractors who are performing any services that in any way relate to a federal contract.”

Regional airlines fly government employees on behalf of their partners and participate in the Essential Air Service program that offers subsidies to fly to underserved US cities. Brett Hart, United’s president, said just a day prior to Parker’s comments that its regional carriers were still “evaluating the applicability of the executive order.”