Hundreds of employees and customers rallied outside of Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas Monday morning, two weeks after the company said that all workers must get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to keep their jobs.
Protesters hoisted signs reading “Freedom not force,” “Terminate the Mandate” and “Where’s the Luv?,” calling back to the catchphrase for the Dallas-based airline. Others drove up and down Denton Drive honking and yelling out windows, hoping to draw the airline’s attention to vocal opposition to the vaccines. Southwest is headquartered at Dallas Love Field, with the corporate campus accessed from Denton Drive.
The protest follows a similar rally at American Airlines on Oct. 7 in Fort Worth and a week after conspiracy theories spread blaming thousands of cancellations and delays a week ago on a walkout by pilots to protest vaccine mandates, something that both Southwest and the union for pilots both adamantly denied.
Thomas McCauley, a 63-year-old ground operations employee for Southwest at Houston Hobby Airport, said he’s considering retiring if he is forced to be vaccinated to keep his job.
“I have a call scheduled with my financial advisor this week to see if I am able to retire or not,” McCauley said. “I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but I don’t think anyone should be forced to do this.”
McCauley said he was already diagnosed with an asymptomatic case of COVID-19 in January and that the natural antibodies should be enough.
Most of the nation’s major airlines have warned employees that they would need to be vaccinated to comply with a White House executive order for all federal contractors. Airlines such as Southwest have contracts to carry federal employees, military members and U.S. mail, among other deals.
Employees at Southwest have been told they have until Nov. 24 to turn in documentation proving they are fully vaccinated “in order to continue employment.” The company is allowing employees to file for an exemption for medical or religious reasons.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is the only major airline so far to spurn a mandate for employees, although the company has imposed $200 monthly health insurance surcharges. Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said 90% of the company’s employees are vaccinated for COVID-19.
The required vaccines for employees have become the latest political fight tormenting the airline industry since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic 19 months ago. Airlines were one of the first industries to require masks to be worn on board and that led to a major surge in unruly passengers, with the majority refusing to wear masks.
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the company was cognizant of the “informational demonstration” outside its headquarters.
“Southwest acknowledges various viewpoints regarding the COVID-19 vaccine, and we have always supported, and will continue to support, our employees’ right to express themselves, with open lines of communication to share issues and concerns,” Mainz said.
Many protesters who identified themselves as Southwest employees, particularly flight attendants, said they were not able to speak to the media because of a company policy against doing so.
However, many held signs such as “38 years of service” and “15 wonderful years flight attendant. No jab? No job?”
William Hill, a corporate pilot who lives in Denton, said he would look for other airlines to fly on in light of Southwest’s requirement that employees be vaccinated.
“Southwest isn’t the kind of company that you would expect this from,” Hill said. “They’ve always been a company that appeals a bit more to the working man, but this goes against that.”
Cynda Bouse, a retired Southwest flight attendant, said this wouldn’t have happened when she was at the airline from 1980 to 2001.
“Herb Kelleher would be rolling over in his grave,” said Bouse, who lives in Aubrey and runs an apparel boutique in Highland Park. “He would have fought for his employees.”
The mandate has pitted management at the company against employee unions, in particular pilots who say they are worried that vaccines could put their flight certificates at risk because of strict health requirements. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are no long-term risks from any of the approved vaccines.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has asked a federal court for an injunction against the vaccine mandate. In response, Southwest said the pilot’s request to stop the vaccine mandate was “extraordinary” and would cause “substantial harm” to the company. The company’s legal filing described the U.S. government as its largest single customer.
Southwest has said it is being forced by the federal government to make sure all employees are vaccinated.
“Now, I do not believe it is up to me, as CEO of a company, to mandate to people that they get vaccinated. That’s my personal philosophy and my personal belief,” CEO Gary Kelly said in a memo to employees two weeks ago. “So, while I do not believe I have the right to mandate people to be vaccinated, the government does — they have the legal authority to mandate vaccinations.”