Now We Know Why United Airlines Was So Bold With Its Vaccine Mandate

President Biden on Thursday announced sweeping national vaccine mandates, which are still to be written. Timing remains uncertain, but federal workers will have to be vaccinated. So will federal contractors. And most health care workers. And anyone employed by a company with over 100 workers (though weekly testing will be an alternative). Federal workers, of course get a 75 day grace period and only then will begin the ‘standard H.R. process’ such as it is.

This announcement puts a move made by United Airlines just the day before in a new light. United Airlines was specifically called out as an example by President Biden in his speech announcing plans to have OSHA require employers with over 100 employees impose vaccine mandates or weekly Covid-19 testing.

This was just one day after United doubled down on its own vaccine mandate declaring there would be no one working with an exemption – that anyone who did not get vaccinated would go on unpaid leave until a date to be determined either when the pandemic had subsided or new requirements were put in place. And on the same day airlines committed to increase their use of biofuels at a White House event on curtailing carbon emissions.

None of the timing here can be a coincidence.

  1. Airlines are one of the most heavily regulated industries, their bosses are in Washington. This surprises people because they think of ‘deregulation’ in 1978 – which really just meant that the federal government stopped telling airlines which routes to fly and what to charge.

    Airports are mostly owned by governments in the U.S. Airport security mostly carried out by the federal government. Air traffic control is directly handled by the federal government. Even giving hand sanitizer to passengers on planes requires multiple layers of government permission.

  2. Airlines have become even greater wards of the state, having received $79 billion in direct taxpayer support during the pandemic and with the U.S. Treasury taking effective ownership stakes in U.S. carriers via stock warrants.

  3. Knowing that who pays the fiddler calls the tune, Airlines quickly got on board with the President’s agenda after inauguration, explicitly looking for more subsidies.

  4. United Airlines in particular tries to signal ‘correct’ politics

Some have advocated a vaccination requirement for travel. I’d choose an airline that required vaccination over one that didn’t.

Make no mistake, despite gaslighting in social media, the vaccines that have been developed are remarkable.

  • Highly effective even against infection, the Pfizer vaccine in particular seems to show declining sterilizing immunity several months after administration. Perhaps dosing should have been more spread out initially. However a booster shot more than makes up for this.

  • Even this ‘waning effectiveness’ is still remarkable against severe disease, with Israeli data showing a two dose regimen remaining over 90% effective against hospitalization after six months. This is the effectiveness we care about because it means keeping people alive and keeping hospitals from being overrun.

  • And vaccinated people aren’t just less likely to get the virus, they’re less likely to spread it as well, an effect that’s compounded by clearing the virus more quickly than someone who is unvaccinated.

At the same time a federal mandate on employers with $14,000 per incident fines is going to be cumbersome. And it’s not clear how requiring vaccination for those who work entirely from home is necessary for the workplace safety of others. With the alternative to vaccination being weekly testing, the rules bring new relief to how the FDA has refused to allow inexpensive testing the way there is in Europe – a year ago I wrote that cheap $1 tests could bring life back to normal and many readers were skeptical this was possible, but it’s exactly what’s now available in Europe.

And the mandate, once promulgated, is unlikely to follow the science. For instance it’s unlikely to take account of natural immunity from prior infection. We know that recovering from Covid-19 and having a single shot of an mRNA vaccine is more effective than someone that hasn’t had the virus getting two shots. From a science standpoint, and to make more doses available to the world, there’s no reason to ask most people who have had the virus to get two shots.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Jack the Lad

    FYI – In Australia the PM and federal government are / have been responsible for procurement of vaccines, their initial roll out to priority groups, and allocation to the various states and territories to administer. The state governments are responsible for daily health care delivery, including implementation of public heath and social measures, test, trace and isolate and quarantine, and state/territory borders. So matters are not as clear cut as you post may suggest.

    It’s not up to the PM to “throw in the towel” simply because, aside from national border control, he lacks most of the legal powers to manage response to COVID on a daily basis. In other words, he doesn’t get to choose. He is taking a political stance to try and save his skin.

    There are layers of politics beyond that (some states are aligned with the federal government and some aren’t), arguably too complex to summarise quickly in a post.

    The PM / federal government clearly messed up on its part of the gig. They didn’t procure sufficient diversity of vaccine candidates. They were late to the game. According to emails now public Pfizer was trying to engage with them and they were MIA. They didn’t roll out efficiently to the priority groups leaving the country exposed to the Delta VOC.

    So yes, they squandered the advantage of substantially eliminating COVID and the time that bought to get the nation vaccinated.

    For this (and likely other reasons) the PM / federal government is behind in the polls (46% to 54%) with an election due in the next 6 months. On the other hand, all of the state and territory governments have enjoyed high levels of electoral support.

    If you don’t like Australia, then simply don’t come back. If you can’t cope with facts and figures deployed to counter prejudice and misinformation, then by all means continue to wallow in your ignorance and misperception, whilst shooting the messenger. Your choices.

    FWIW and IMHO various right wing governments (“Republican”) have used shameful politics to lock in the racist trash to try to win elections – fringe right wing parties dabble in the corner. On the other hand, in our street and local community, we enjoy engagement with a huge diversity of people, including those from Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, China, Colombia, England, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Peru, Scotland, Slovakia, Switzerland, South Africa, Uruguay, Zimbabwe. Oh yes, and the USA.

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