American Airlines is on a potential collision course with its pilot’s union after deciding that new federal vaccine mandate rules for government contractors do apply to its employees. On Friday, American’s chief executive Doug Parker and President Robert Isom broke the news to workers, saying it was clear that “team members who choose to remain unvaccinated will not be able to work at American Airlines”.
The decision is likely to have infuriated the Allied Pilots Union (APA), which represents American’s 15,000 pilots. The union told its members last week that it had launched an “aggressive” effort to fight the vaccine mandate, arguing pilots should be given an “alternative means of compliance”.
APA wrote to members of Congress warning that a vaccine mandate which didn’t have specific exemptions for pilots could lead to holiday travel chaos and would put the very viability of the U.S. aviation industry at risk.
“We are also concerned that the Executive Order’s anticipated 60-day implementation period for mandatory vaccinations could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems for American Airlines and its peers,” APA president Captain Eric Ferguson wrote in the letter.
“Airlines generate a substantial portion of their annual revenue during the holiday period, with a great many travelers depending on us to get them to their destinations. Our nation’s airlines, and the traveling public, cannot afford significant service disruptions due to labor shortages.”
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) has issued a similar warning, telling its members that SWAPA “will vigorously defend your choice to vaccinate yourself or not.”
Both unions claim pilots should be allowed to remain unvaccinated because the side effects from the vaccines could be so harmful as to ruin their careers.
“Pilots are required to maintain a medical and that needs to be sacrosanct,” Southwest’s pilots were told in a recent SWAPA memo. “How you choose to maintain your health and well-being and, by extension, your medical is YOUR decision alone,” the memo continued.
APA has told lawmakers that some of its members are “reluctant to get vaccinated based upon concerns about the potential for career-ending side effects”.
Some of those fears have been stoked by anti-vax campaigners who falsely claimed that four British Airways pilots died suddenly and unexpectedly after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
In fact, one of the four pilots died after a long spell of COVID-19 induced illness, going some way to prove that the risks of catching COVID-19 far outweigh the potential risks of having the vaccine.
The UK’s Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) denied any link between the death of the four pilots and COVID-19 vaccines.
Most of the side effects are mild and short term. The most common include tiredness, headache and muscle pain, as well as chills, fever and nausea, and are the reason why the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tells pilots not to go to work for 48 hours after receiving the shot.
Reports of more severe side effects include very rare blood clots with the J&J Janssen shot and myocarditis linked to mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. These could prove career-ending but real-world data would suggest the risk is minuscule.
United Airlines has achieved an employee vaccination rate of more than 99.5 per cent amongst non-exempt pilots. The vast majority of United’s 12,000 strong pilot workforce are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The ALPA pilots union, which represents United’s flight crew remains supportive of the vaccine mandate. There have been no known reports of career-ending side effects amongst United’s pilots.
The simple truth is, vaccine mandates work. Refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine is nearly 100 per cent guaranteed to be career-ending. The risk of career-ending side effects from taking the vaccine is tiny.
The vast majority of pilots will choose the vaccine, and a tiny number may decide termination is preferable to taking the vaccine. But “mass terminations” as APA fears are overstated.
Christmas holiday travel will go ahead as planned.
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.
I bet a lot of airline lawyers are reading through their collective bargaining agreements as we speak. Forcing pilots to do something they are mostly against during a pilot shortage isn’t going to end well I have a feeling.