United Airlines has told a north Texas court that it is spending as much as $1.4 million every two weeks to pay unvaccinated pilots to stay at home because their vaccinated colleagues don’t want to work with them. United wants to force unvaccinated pilots onto an indefinite period of unpaid leave but has been blocked by a temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman.
In a filing with the Texas Northern District Court, lawyers acting on behalf of United Airlines argued that the temporary restraining order was causing “irreparable harm” to the airline because of the huge cost involved in continuing to pay unvaccinated pilots.
The filing noted that the only reason United was still paying unvaccinated pilots was that “there is no other option available—vaccinated employees simply will not fly with the unvaccinated crew”.
Although United touts a vaccination rate of more than 99.5 per cent of U.S.-based employees, the figure excludes any workers who successfully argued they should be granted an exemption from vaccination due to a medical reason or religious belief.
United is required to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to keep hundreds of exempt workers employed but the airline argues it isn’t safe to allow unvaccinated staff employed in frontline roles like pilots, flight attendants and gate agents in post.
The airline has, therefore, decided that it wants to make exempt workers take an indefinite period of unpaid leave. Unvaccinated workers will only be allowed to return to paid work until United decides that the threat of the pandemic has significantly diminished.
Lawyers acting on behalf of a group of unvaccinated United pilots, flight attendants and other workers who brought the original lawsuit against the airline have dismissed United’s claims saying “it has never been true that any significant number of vaccinated pilots have refused to fly with unvaccinated pilots”.
“Indeed, the claim is easily rebutted by showing the instances of vaccinated and unvaccinated pilots flying together throughout the past nine months,” a filed response continues.
The unvaccinated workers argue that other accommodations, like regular COVID-19 testing, could allow them to continue working while keeping their colleagues safe.
The temporary restraining is due to expire on Tuesday.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have backed away from strict interpretations of President Biden’s vaccine mandate for government contractors and are likely to grant exemptions to most employees who request one.
Both airlines could offer various accommodations such as regular testing, and mandatory mask wearing to keep unvaccinated employees at work.
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.