United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby believes that vaccine mandates represent “the biggest incremental risk” in U.S. aviation.
Speaking at United’s Third Quarter Earnings Call on October 20th, Kirby argued that liberal exemptions at other airlines will lead to burdensome testing requirements which will cripple operations.
So we just managed it completely different than has happened at other airlines. And you talked about the risk going forward, and I think looking forward, by far, the biggest incremental risk in aviation in the United States are vaccine mandates. United we did our vaccine mandate — obviously as a mandate, we did — we were done with it before government requirements came in. So we did it purely for safety reasons.
But listening to other airlines that are now backing off those vaccine requirement and are going to encouraging employees to just all apply for an exemption and they’re likely to have tens of thousands of employees that need to be tested every week. This is a rear view mirror for United, this is not going to be an issue.
But can you imagine you have tens of thousands of employees, people forget to get their test, people do the test wrong, people don’t get it done, people test positive. And if you think whether in one state can lead to a meltdown, imagine if you have thousands of employees on one day calling in and saying for some reason, my test did not pass. I mean, it is going to be a huge challenge for airlines that are not implementing vaccine requirements.
Customers can book with confidence on United. We’re done with it. You can book with confidence on United. But, if you’re booking on an airline that doesn’t have a vaccine requirement they got government rules they have to follow and caveat emptor.
Kirby rightly recognizes that American and Southwest will likely grant a significantly higher number of exemption requests than United. And unlike United, those workers will likely be allowed to continue to work as usual, not be placed on unpaid leave (though this is currently being litigated). Per federal mandate, those workers who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 will have to undergo frequent testing.
Kirby is concerned burdensome testing requirements will pose a “huge challenge” for airlines. That’s an interesting theory, but I’m not sure that will be the case. Sure, it will be a challenge, but rapid testing can be done in mere minutes and I just don’t see this being the huge problem Kirby predicts.
Furthermore, Delta’s alternate approach to the vaccine mandate seems to be working well. No, Delta may not boast vaccination rates quite as high as United, but without any force over 90% of Delta employees are already vaccinated and that number is expected to rise.
Finally, there is not another U.S. airline that “doesn’t have a vaccine requirement.” They all do. The question is just how easily exemptions will be granted and how those exemptions may impact operations.
Kirby calls vaccine mandates the “biggest incremental risk” in U.S. aviation, but he does not mean the vaccine itself. Instead, he believes that other airlines who grant widespread exemptions to the federal vaccine mandate face operational danger due to testing requirements. Time will tell whether that is the case, but I think testing will be less of an issue than proper staffing in the first place.