businessAirlines

American Airlines, Southwest pilots say vaccine mandate could lead to holiday shortages

Pilots for Southwest and American Airlines warned that pilots could leave if they are forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Pilots at two of the country’s biggest airlines said that mandates for COVID-19 vaccines could lead to major shortages during the holiday flying season.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 pilots at Fort Worth-based American Airlines, sent the White House and congressional leaders a letter Friday that warned that carriers may have “mass terminations of unvaccinated pilots” if the White House goes through with its announced plans to require COVID-19 vaccinations for federal contractors and companies with 100 or more employees.

“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 terminations of unvaccinated pilots, it is essential that an alternate means of compliance with the Executive Order be made available for professional pilots,” the letter from Allied Pilots Association president Eric Ferguson said.

An American Airlines pilot walked past as airport contractor David Ramirez wiped down check-in kiosks with disinfectant at DFW International Airport Terminal A in 2020.
Airlines

Pandemic slowdown spurs the biggest hiring push for airline pilots in decades

U.S. airlines will need to hire at least 7,000 new pilots next year to fill the gaps created by retiring baby boomers and pandemic buyouts.The airline industry is in its biggest hiring push in decades, not only for the frontline employees such as gate and ramp agents, but for high-skilled workers such as pilots that need years of expensive training before they can start work, said Louis Smith, CEO of FAPA, a pilot training and recruiting consulting group.
By

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association issued a similar warning in a statement Monday.

Unions warned that pilots could retire early or go on long-term leave to avoid vaccinations. Representatives for both unions said that a large number of pilots are likely unvaccinated. In August, a representative for the Allied Pilots Union estimated that 60% to 70% of pilots are fully vaccinated, about the same as the average for adults in the U.S. of 66.6%. SWAPA president Casey Murray estimated that fewer than half of its pilots may be vaccinated.

“We are also concerned that the Executive Order’s anticipated 60-day implementation period for mandatory vaccinations could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems for Southwest Airlines and its peers,” said a statement from the union that represents 8,500 pilots at Dallas-based Southwest.

Both airlines have issued incentives including free vacation days and bonus pay to encourage pilots and other employees to get vaccinated. But neither has required vaccinations. Chicago-based United Airlines, which is requiring employees to be vaccinated or apply for a medical or religious exemption, said the requirement has led to a 99% vaccination rate.

Neither American nor Southwest is sure how many employees are vaccinated because the deadlines to submit proof of vaccine haven’t passed.

All of the country’s major airlines ran into labor shortages during the summer as they tried to ramp up to meet a spike in travel demand after the long downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Airlines including American and Southwest have reduced schedules this fall to make sure there are enough employees to cover all scheduled flights.

But the holidays are typically a high-demand period when nearly all employees — from pilots and flight attendants to baggage handlers and gate agents — are expected to be ready to work.

“We are also concerned that the Executive Order’s anticipated 60-day implementation period for mandatory vaccinations could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems for American Airlines and its peers,” the letter from Allied Pilots said. “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.

“Our nation’s airlines, and the traveling public, cannot afford significant service disruptions due to labor shortages,” the letter said.

Pilots are concerned that their long-term ability to fly may be at risk from the potential side effects of a COVID-19 vaccine. People with a host of medical conditions are already prohibited or limited from getting a license to fly for a commercial airline.

“Some of SWAPA’s members are unable to undergo vaccination for documented medical reasons, while others are reluctant to be vaccinated based upon concerns about the potential for career-ending side effects,” the pilots union for Southwest Airlines said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “millions of people have received COVID-19 vaccines, and no long-term side effects have been detected.”

Kyle Arnold. Kyle Arnold is the aviation writer for The Dallas Morning News, covering airlines, air travel and the aerospace industry. He previously worked as a business journalist for the Orlando Sentinel, Tulsa World and The Monitor in McAllen. He is a University of Washington graduate.

kyle.arnold@dallasnews.com /bykylearnold kylelarnold
Business Briefing

Business Briefing

Become a business insider. Get the latest headlines delivered to your inbox every weekday.

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy