United Airlines Isn’t Messing Around On Vaccines

United Airlines was first out of the gate and strongest with a vaccine requirement for employees. They weren’t just requiring it for new employees (Delta) or incentivizing employees to get it (American). They aren’t just forcing the unvaxxed to take classes explaining that vaccines don’t connect you to the internet or make you the legal property of a pharmaceutical company (Alaska). It’s get vaxxed or get fired.

Here’s Scott Kirby speaking to United Airlines employees:

There are legal limits to what United can do. While the federal government has supported employer vaccine mandates (even before the first full authorization to a Covid-19 vaccine was granted to Pfizer-BioNTech) there are generally carve outs needed for those medically unable to get vaccinated and for those with religious objections. United has had the support of its flight attendants union not to even assist flight attendants in seeking religious exemptions.

While United legal concluded they had to offer these vaccine exemptions, they’ve decided that anyone obtaining one cannot work in some cases “he pandemic meaningfully recedes” and in other cases (such as non-customer facing roles) when new health procedures are in place for weekly Covid testing and masking.

United Airlines employees who receive religious exemptions from the company for COVID-19 vaccinations will be placed on temporary, unpaid personal leave from Oct. 2, the U.S. airline said in a Wednesday memo to staff.

…“Given the dire statistics listed above, we can no longer allow unvaccinated people back into the workplace until we better understand how they might interact with our customers and their vaccinated coworkers,” the airline said the memo.

…United said the restriction and requirements are similar for employees seeking medical exemptions but employees winning exemptions will be placed on temporary medical leave.

In some ways United is taking a truly hard line – and is reasonably likely to attract lawsuits – but at the same time is splitting the baby and not doing much for public health because there’s no requirement that customers must be vaccinated.

  • Passengers come into more contact with other passengers than employees (in gate areas, check-in lines, security and in middle seats)

  • Cabin crew and airport agents come into more contact with passengers than other employees as well.

I would fly an airline where everyone had to be vaccinated (and those with legally-necessitated exemptions had to properly wear high quality masks). Knowing that employees are vaccinated doesn’t meaningfully change my exposure profile.

And it’s not just Covid-19 I’m concerned with, so airlines need to look at their sick policies so that employees aren’t pressured to work when they’re infectious with things not called Covid-19 as well.

To be sure the airline has a legitimate interest in reducing the chance that crew infect each other, because large numbers of sick employees will compromise the business. It’s prudent to push for a vaccinated workforce during a pandemic. But it’s not a major contributor to passenger protection.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. United doesn’t care about customers. This about ensuring their planes are adequately staffed. They don’t want a workforce that is on sick leave due to covid symptoms, and thus, presumably have to cancel flights because the flight can’t be staffed.

  2. I appreciate companies requiring employees who deal with customers to be vaccinated. I’d be for requiring it of passengers too. But more than anyone, grade school teachers ought to be required to be vaccinated. For adults it is a risk they choose if they don’t get the shot, but so far the kids are not eligible and have no choice.

  3. To answer this:

    Vijay says:
    September 9, 2021 at 6:50 am

    Honest question:
    Why isn’t covid killing the billions of still unvaccinated people in third world countries where social distancing, proper mask wearing, and hygiene are non existent? I would think there would be bodies piling up in dense populated cities in Africa, Bangladesh, and Indonesia , etc. ?

    It is because in many of these 3rd world countries, especially in many African countries where malaria is a problem, people have been taking anti-malaria drugs like Hydroxychloroquine and that has helped there.

    Hydroxychloroquine was been given a bad rap in the U.S. but when administered early along with the zinc pack and amoxycillin it could have saved tens of thousands of lives there.

  4. Those opposing the Covid Vaccines may have a point with unknown future adverse effects of some of these vaccines, BUT the mRNA vaccines like the Moderna and Pfizer rely on medical scientific research that has been going on for a couple of decades now, and one of their aims was to fight certain cancers.

    This is not something that was just cooked up a year or two ago just to fight Covid. There is a lot of medical scientific knowledge behind the mRNA vaccines.
    And now Moderna has a booster that combines the Flu and the Covid vaccines.

    The mRNA science has a very promising future against other health issues like cancer.

  5. With today’s national mandate for companies with over 100 employees, this post seems irrelevant….

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