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These U.S. Airlines Are Leading The Industry’s Vaccination Push

Date: August 11, 2021

By  - Forbes

Seven months since the United States’ vaccine rollout got underway, only half of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the . Even when you factor in all the Americans who have natural immunity after recovering from the illness, the country still has a long way to go before reaching population immunity and putting a fork in the Covid-19 pandemic, say public health experts.

“I am optimistic that we are going to get a lot more population immunity in the next two, three months, four months,” says Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown School of Public Health. “But it’s going to be a slog.”

That’s bad news for the travel industry, which had started to see signs of recovery this summer. But now cracks are forming in that rosy outlook. Yesterday, Southwest Airlines warned that it was seeing flatlining bookings and increased cancellations. Last week, budget carrier Frontier Airlines tamped down its forecast for the third quarter and warned of decreasing demand.

A new Harris Poll reveals that Americans are paying closer attention to the delta variant and beginning to . Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Americans say they are checking Covid case numbers or infection rates for their destinations before they go. And if they had a vacation planned to an area of the country that was experiencing a Covid surge, a majority of Americans now say they would either postpone the trip until it felt safe (29%) or cancel entirely (22%).

Not even a cheap flight can change minds. When asked if they found a great airfare deal to a location that was experiencing a spike in Covid cases, only 31% of respondents would definitely (14%) or probably (17%) jump at the opportunity. Twice as many Americans say they would probably not (30%) or definitely not (38%) grab the deal.

One way to hasten the country’s path to recovery, say experts, is for more large employers to impose vaccine mandates for their workers. Indeed, concerns about the fast-spreading delta variant of Covid-19 have prompted more than a dozen large U.S. companies — including Google, Walmart and Tyson Foods — to issue vaccine mandates for all or some of their employees.

“I think some of these vaccine mandates are really going to cause a lot of upticks” in the country’s overall vaccination rate, says Dr. Jha.

In the span of a week, a trio of U.S. airlines have stepped up in the effort to get more Americans vaccinated. United Airlines became the first major U.S. carrier to mandate vaccines for its roughly 67,000 employees, who must be fully vaccinated by October 25 or risk termination.

“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” wrote United Airlines’ CEO Scott Kirby and president Brett Hart in a note to staff. “But, we have no greater responsibility to you and your colleagues than to ensure your safety when you’re at work, and the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.” United is allowing exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Then, last Friday, Frontier Airlines announced that all direct employees must be fully vaccinated by October 1. Employees that choose not to or are unable to get vaccinated will be asked to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test “on a regular basis.” 

“As we continue to watch the rapid increase of new Covid-19 cases across the United States caused by the delta variant, I am concerned for the well-being of our team members, their families and friends,” said Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle in a statement. “The time has come to do what we can to help put an end to Covid-19.” The low-cost airlines has also been running promotions that dangle free flights and bonus miles for vaccinated flyers.

On Monday, Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram told employees that they must be fully vaccinated by November 1. “Safety is the foundation of air travel, and it is ingrained throughout our operation and service. This is no different,” wrote Ingram in his memo. Like United, the airline is allowing exceptions for medical or religious reasons.

Alaska Airlines signaled yesterday that it, too, may issue a vaccine mandate — but only after the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) fully authorizes the shots. The three vaccines in the United States — made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — have been authorized on an emergency basis but have yet to be fully approved.

“Due to the highly contagious Covid-19 delta variant, we are looking closely at whether we will require that employees are vaccinated,” said Alaska Airlines in a statement. “If we do, the requirement would not be effective until at least one vaccine is fully approved by the FDA and would include appropriate religious and medical exemptions. We have a duty to keep our employees safe. The contagiousness and health risks of the Covid-19 virus and its variants affect our employees and the communities we serve. Safety is our highest value and we have an imperative to protect one another from this virus.”

So far, none of the other major U.S. airlines — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways — have changed their vaccination policies.

While American Airlines is not requiring employees to get vaccinated, “we have been incentivizing our team members to get vaccinated, and strongly encouraging our team members to get vaccinated,” says an American Airlines spokesperson. Employees who get vaccinated get an additional vacation day in 2022 plus a $50 gift card through the company’s employee recognition platform.

“We still are strongly encouraging our employees to vaccinate themselves and to share with us their vaccination status,” according to an email from a Southwest Airlines spokesperson.

Neither Delta Air Lines nor JetBlue Airways responded to requests for comment.

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