“We know how to keep our employees and our customers safe,” replied Dr. Henry Ting, the chief health officer for Delta Air Lines, when asked by CNN host John Berman just over a week ago why Delta wouldn’t follow the lead of United or act on the advice of the White House pandemic task force by issuing a vaccine mandate for its 74,000 strong U.S.-based workforce.
The implication was clear. Delta knew better than some of the country’s most revered infectious disease specialists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has called for “many, many more” vaccine mandates.
Delta chief executive Ed Bastian has repeatedly rejected calls to issue a vaccine mandate for his airline’s serving employees. Even after Delta became the first airline to require all new joiners to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination back in May, Bastian declined to extend the mandate.
Within the space of a few short months, Delta has gone from being a poster child for the airline industry of how to keep customers and staff safe during the pandemic to what could amount to an anti-vaxxer’s dream.
Delta was one of only a handful of airlines in the entire world that blocked middle passenger seats in order to enable social distancing. Even when its biggest rivals were filling their planes to capacity, Delta kept its middle seat block in place and took a gamble – passengers would be willing to pay more to fly an airline that took their health seriously.
Delta maintained that strategy even when the likes of jetBlue and Alaska Airlines lifted their capacity caps.
It wasn’t until May 1, when the vaccine rollout was well underway, that Delta eventually started to fly its planes at total capacity. The airline took the decision based on its own research that showed that 75 per cent of its passengers planned to be fully vaccinated by the summer.
Even then, Delta promised that this wouldn’t be a return to normal. Onboard service remained reduced, and the airline would keep up its uncompromising approach to anti-maskers.
In fact, since the start of the pandemic Delta has banned 1,600 passengers – mainly for mask non-compliance. It’s by far the most extensive no-fly list created by any U.S. airline, and Delta wants to go one step further by creating a master no-fly list that would be shared between airlines. A ban by one carrier would mean a ban from all airlines.
Delta’s reluctance then to issue a vaccine mandate seems odd at best.
“Delta has consistently followed the science to keep its customers and employees safe, all while keeping their values at the forefront of every decision,” the airline says about its current pandemic and vaccine protocols.
The Atlanta-based airline has done its best to encourage employees to get the shot. Financial incentives pushed the vaccination rate up to 70 per cent. But an employee lottery with a total prize fund of more than $1 million increased the vaccination rate by a measly 4 per cent.
When United announced it would extend a vaccination requirement for all new employees to its entire U.S.-based workforce, Delta didn’t flinch.
By this point, however, it was clear that Delta’s hope of reaching “herd immunity” was a pipe dream with the reality that the aptly named delta variant had utterly changed our understanding of the effects that vaccines would have on the pandemic.
Only two months later did Bastian respond. On August 25, Delta announced it would start charging unvaccinated employees a $200 monthly surcharge to access its healthcare benefits.
Within a few weeks, the surcharge had pushed the airline’s vaccination rate up to 82 per cent.
It remains far short of United’s 99.5 per cent employee vaccination rate.
The reluctance of some airlines to follow United’s lead prompted an intervention from the White House on Thursday. Issue employee vaccine mandates or lose out on lucrative government contracts.
The demand was enough to flip three airlines almost immediately. Alaska Airlines and jetBlue acted first. Then American Airlines followed, telling employees the implication was clear – get vaccinated or find another job. The Biden administration wants the mandates in full force by December 8.
By this point, it looks almost certain that Delta will follow suit. It has little choice but to comply. The damage, however, may already have been done.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.