While American Airlines has told employees there is no escaping the federal vaccine mandate recently imposed on government contractors by the Biden Administration, Delta Air Lines has expressed a reluctance to require employees to be vaccinated.
American Airlines: Vaccine Mandatory
In a memo to employees dated October 1st, American Airlines notes that because it participates in a number of federal government programs like the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and Department of Defense cargo contracts, it is considered a a government contractor.
Consequently, it cannot merely offer a vaccination or testing program, but must mandate all employees be fully vaccinated.
Delta Air Lines: No Mandatory Vaccine…Yet
Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines says it has not decided yet whether to force employees to choose between vaccination and company separation. Speaking at an International Air Transport Association (IATA) event over the weekend, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said:
“We’re obviously studying it. I’m not sure how far you need to go in order to be in compliance with the EO [executive order].”
Delta said 84% of all employees are vaccinated and it expects that number to top 90% by November 1st. Delta plans to implement a $200/month surcharge on employees who choose not to be vaccinated.
What Does The Rule Actually Say?
While the Biden Administration has gone so far as to contact airlines and prod them to copy the approach United Airlines took (which can now boast a vaccination rate of 99.5% of employees who have not requested an exemption or 97.5% of all employees), the relevant Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules have not been promulgated yet.
In that sense, Delta’s decision to “wait and see” does not necessarily indicate it will continue to avoid a vaccine mandate, but simply that it needs to see the rule before it can implement it. On the other hand, based upon the language of the Biden Administration it appears that American Airlines is simply following the rule that is assuredly in the pipeline.
We’ve seen vaccine resistance clustered in geographic regions of the United States, making the issue particularly perilous for American Airlines, which has a huge pilot base in Dallas. In total, about 4,000 American Airlines pilots are not yet vaccinated.
Let’s play that out – if pilots decide to retire instead of receive the jab, union rules will require mass re-training, as more junior pilots are promoted to larger aircraft. Depending upon how many holdouts there are, American Airlines may soon be proactively cancelling flights in order to avoid future meltdowns. Already over the summer we saw how stretched American Airlines is when it comes to pilot supply. Delta has also faced pilot-related shortages.
Meanwhile, a source tells Live and Let’s Fly that United Airlines is preparing precisely for this scenario and will be ready to swoop in and save the day should there be an operational meltdown during the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday periods.
While not an argument for or against a vaccine mandate, the potential operational impacts and pending lawsuits may push implementation of the new rule into 2022. Then again, the class action lawsuit against United Airlines could be dismissed as early as Thursday, when the next hearing takes place.
Finally, American Airlines invited employees with religious or medical objections to apply for an exemption. AA may be able to avoid an operational impact by simply rubber stamping every exemption request and allowing such employees to continue to work (unlike United, which has promised unpaid leave for customer-facing employees who refuse the jab).
Thus far, Delta and American are taking different approaches to the vaccine mandate for federal contractors. While American Airlines is convinced that it must compel employees to be vaccinated, Delta continues to resist that characterization and is instead sticking to to its policy of charging employees $200/month if they refuse to be vaccinated.
Until OSHA clarifies the new workplace rules, I expect Delta will continue to remain on the fence.