All the talk about whether airlines will have employees to operate their schedule over the holidays, with a vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors that doesn’t allow an alternative like weekly Covid-19 testing, raises an interesting point. What is the government accomplishing here?
- Airlines benefit from a vaccinated workforce that won’t have to quarantine or have as many employees call out sick, and of course many countries require people to be vaccinated to vaccinated to enter so unvaccinated crew are limited in their duty.
- Employees who spend time together are less likely to spread the virus when they’re vaccinated. They’re less likely to get it, when they do carry it the virus is likely coated in antibodies.
In the first instance, airlines who felt it was in their best interest to require vaccination would do so without a government mandate. United did this. In some industries companies might avoid a requirement that is otherwise in their best interests because of worker reluctance and need to compete for talent, and government could prevent companies from competing with lower standards. But the heavily unionized airline industry is largely seniority-based, so workers can’t just jump ship without significant loss.
It’s true that vaccinated employees will be less likely to infect each other, which is good for public health, but for the most part employees on trips come into contact more with passengers than each other – even pilots do when traveling through airports.
Yet there’s no airline passenger vaccination mandate. And that’s because, like the federal mask mandate for transportation, it isn’t that transportation carries the greatest risk of virus spread it’s that government is imposing mandates where it thinks it can – in this case government contractors.
At a Crew News question and answer session with employees this week, American Airlines President Robert Isom was asked by a pilot why – if all employees have to be vaccinated – don’t passengers have to be vaccinated too?
That’s not what’s at issue here. What’s at issue is to be a government contractor and to carry Defense Department cargo, to carry the CRAF flying that we did to Afghanistan, to carry passengers under the General services agreement under the government travel award which is hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That’s what’s at stake here. The executive order doesn’t include passengers.
In other words this is about government regulation and the bottom line at American Airlines, it isn’t about safety. Sadly, even United Airlines which presents its vaccine mandate as being somehow more noble, imposes no such condition on passengers traveling. I’d certainly choose to fly an airline where I knew the person in the middle seat next to me was vaccinated. No U.S. airline is offering this in a meaningful way.