Gary Kelly, the embattled outgoing chief executive of Southwest Airlines, says he never wanted to introduce an employee vaccine mandate like United Airlines but that President Biden forced the airline’s hand when he signed an executive order that forces government contractors to introduce vaccine mandates for their employees.
While doing the media rounds following a disastrous weekend for the airline, Kelly told CNBC that he was opposed to mandating COVID-19 vaccination but that Southwest had no option but to comply with new federal rules that are set to come into force soon.
Southwest was forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights over the holiday weekend after just a few hours of bad weather and air traffic control issues in the Florida area on Friday afternoon compounded staffing shortages and cascaded into a major operational meltdown.
Critics of Southwest’s vaccine mandate quickly blamed the chaos on an unauthorized pilot sickout. Southwest and its pilot union have rejected the conspiracy theories but that didn’t stop anti-mandate lawmakers and rightwing commentators from insinuating that Southwest’s vaccine mandate and weekend woes are linked.
“We have some very strong views on that topic, but that’s not what was at issue with Southwest over the weekend,” Kelly said during an interview with CNBC on Tuesday.
“I’ve never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate. I’m not in favor that. Never have been.
“But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, have to have a mandate … in place by December the 8th, so we’re working through that,” Kelly continued.
Following President Biden’s executive order, Alaska, American Airlines, and jetBlue all quickly fell into line and announced mandates to comply with the yet to be drawn up federal rules.
Only Delta Air Lines has so far refused to comply with the demands of the White House with chief executive Ed Bastian saying that he believes other methods will be more successful in the long run.
Bastian hopes a $200 monthly healthcare surcharge will push Delta’s vaccination rate up to well above 90 percent by November.
United Airlines achieved an employee vaccination rate of more than 99.5 percent of eligible non-exempt employees through a mandate.
While Kelly said Southwest would comply with the federal mandate, he also told CNBC that the airline would accommodate employees who apply for a religious or medical exemption.
“My goal, obviously, is that no one loses their job. The objective here, obviously, is to improve health and safety, not for people to lose their jobs,” Kelly noted.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) filed a lawsuit in federal court on Friday asking for an injunction to be granted against the airline’s vaccine mandate until the airline starts negotiations with the union over how the mandate will be implemented.
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.