United Airlines went hard and it went fast with its vaccine mandate early last summer and the risky strategy is now really starting to pay off. Yes, United’s vaccine mandate failed to prevent a Holiday travel meltdown as thousands of staffers went sick with the highly transmissible Omicron variant but that’s not the only or most important marker of success for the mandate.
On Tuesday, United chief executive Scott Kirby revealed that a staggering 3,000 employees were currently off sick after testing positive for COVID-19. In just one day at Newark recently, one-third of United’s workforce called sick. The vaccine mandate has clearly not completely stopped transmission.
But what the vaccines have stopped in their tracks is hospitalizations and deaths. Of the 3,000 employees currently off work because of a positive test, not a single one is currently in the hospital.
“Since our vaccine policy went into effect, the hospitalization rate among our employees has been 100x lower than the general population in the U.S.,” Kirby wrote in an internal memo.
Prior to the vaccine mandate, Kirby says one United employee was dying on average of COVID-19 every single week. The airline has now gone eight long weeks without single COVID-related death within its vaccinated workforce.
Unlike some airlines, United has taken a much tougher stance against employees who claim a religious or medical exemption and the carrier sacked some workers who simply refused to get vaccinated.
Despite winning the support of its flight attendant and pilots unions, United has still faced resistance from some quarters.
“While I know that some people still disagree with our policy, United is proving that requiring the vaccine is the right thing to do because it saves lives,” Kirby contested.
Rival carriers, including American Airlines and Southwest, only issued vaccine mandates after a federal mandate for government contractors was forced upon them. The mandates have driven up vaccination rates amongst some reluctant workers but both airlines have failed to win the support of its powerful pilot unions.
Facing a pilot shortage, both AA and Southwest have offered to accommodate religious and medical exemptions and, pending a lawsuit, no employee will lose their job if they simply refuse to get vaccinated.
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.