Delta announced that all new employees will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19, but isn’t saying there will be any requirement for current employees to get a shot.
They’ve explained this as a way to keep up the airline’s already-high levels of vaccination. According to spokesperson Elizabeth Ninomiya,
We know that vaccines are the best tool we have to protect one another and bring an end to the pandemic. Delta people have made great progress to achieve herd immunity within our workforce, so to help us maintain that trajectory, we will be requiring all new hires in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they qualify for an accommodation.
This is an important move to protect our workforce and our customers as our business recovers and demand for air travel continues to rise.
They suggest vaccination protects their customers, though passengers vaccinated with mRNA vaccines are largely already protected (and Johnson & Johnson is highly effective against negative outcomes). If you’ve had two Pfizer jabs, especially if your second dose was delayed, you may not care whether the people you interact with have been vaccinated. However if you’re immunocompromised, or vaccine-hesitant, this should be of great comfort.
Part Of A Successful Marketing Strategy
Although United should be commended for running its auxiliary power units on the ground to take advantage of HEPA air filtration and cabin air refresh during boarding and deplaning, Delta probably took more steps than anyone to give customers confidence flying during the pandemic.
This includes blocking middle seats, improving air filtration on jetways, and installing hand sanitizer stations on (some) aircraft.
Delta has been known in the past for its operational reliability, somewhat friendlier service, and marginally better inflight experience (from seat back entertainment to amenity kits in coach on longer flights). Their reliability has melted down over recent holiday periods, and they’ve been slow to return inflight service relative to competitors.
However their focus has been Covid-protection and passenger confidence as a strategy to earn a revenue premium, and marketing their efforts heavily. Announcing this requirement, even though it doesn’t appear to apply to any existing employees, should be seen with through this lens.
Is Delta Nearing Herd Immunity?
Delta says they’ve “made great progress to achieve herd immunity within our workforce” which is a rather odd claim. That’s not how herd immunity works.
While the percentage of people immune to stop transmission varies based on the reproductive rate of a virus, let’s say 70% was enough to stop it. What that means is that with so many people impervious to a virus, it runs into dead ends. When someone has the virus, they can’t find enough people to infect to keep chains of transmission going.
However herd immunity is largely in reference to a stable community. Delta employees don’t just come into contact with other Delta employees, they come into contact with their families, they come into contact with customers, they come into contact with supermarket workers. Herd immunity requires that enough members of the community representing all interactions be immune in order to protect those that aren’t. Delta isn’t a closed community, so suggesting ‘Delta is at or nearing herd immunity’ isn’t meaningful, outside of claims that the broader U.S. is. (And even that gets tricky.)
Will Other Airlines Require Vaccination?
United Airlines wanted to require all employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19. United’s CEO Scott Kirby even mused about ‘vaccinated-only’ seating sections, if only the government would allow it.
American Airlines on the other hand said they wouldn’t require vaccination though some destinations employees might need to travel to could require it and its CEO acknowledged that competitive pressures could force it to reverse its position – if other airlines started requiring vaccination, and that made customers feel more comfortable, they could have no choice but to follow suit.
Until now it’s been all talk on the part of airlines, with Delta the one to make the first real move.