NPR’s Ailsa Chang spoke to United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby yesterday on vaccine mandates and forced to Kirby to go beyond his usual talking points on the matter of mandatory vaccines…for customers.
United Airlines CEO Squirms Over Mandatory Vaccines For Customers
Kirby is often asked about obligatory vaccines for air passengers and has a carefully-scripted response ready to go:
CHANG: Practically speaking, though, I mean, no matter your efforts with vaccinating your employees, they are way outnumbered by all the passengers who board your planes. Are there plans to mandate vaccinations for passengers or require proof of vaccination before they can board your planes, I mean, just in fairness to your employees?
KIRBY: I think that mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue. For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive. We have prepared ourselves with technology to be able to upload vaccine cards and track that and implement it if the government ever chooses to go in that direction.
This is Kirby’s standard answer: leave it to the government. But Chang pushed back.
CHANG: Well, I mean, there are certain bars in this country that are mandating vaccination before people can come into the bar. Broadway is mandating vaccines. Why is it up to the government to mandate vaccines when it comes to airlines, but not in those other cases?
KIRBY: Well, we’re, you know, a federally regulated industry. And, you know, people are in terminals. They’re not just our customers. So you go through a security checkpoint, it’s to all airlines. It’s TSA employees. It’s employees at the airport. And so that’s just an environment where I don’t think it’s appropriate for us as an individual business to make that decision and really one that we would need the federal government to take the lead on.
Swing and a miss!
Chang’s question is prescient. If United can get away with vaccine mandates for it employees and effectively sideline those who hold a valid exemption, then I’m not sure what would stop it from requiring the same of passengers.
Kirby’s observation that the airline industry is highly regulated is correct, yet it really does not answer the question. Certainly, talking about how airports and security checkpoints mix customers from various airlines is an evasive answer.
Vaccines are a collective action problem, but distinguishable from airport security in that even if the government decided not to be in the airport security business, airlines would still insist upon security.
The TSA was created to streamline and coordinate airline security; it did not start something new, but grew from at least two decades of private practice.
Vaccinations in order to travel are commonplace for immunizations like yellow fever or small pox. While Kirby’s right that it theoretically would make sense to have a uniform policy, I’m not sure there is anything stopping an airline from introducing one, except for the fact that it would be very bad for business.
And that’s the elephant in the room. Kirby may not admit it, but he doesn’t want a vaccine mandate because it would make 1/3 of Americans ineligible to fly on United.
Why then the employee mandate? Because he thinks it will be good for business and can furlough or fire those employees who do not comply, which also helps preserve cash in the slower autumn and winter months.
I appreciate that Chang forced Kirby off script. His diplomatic “leave it to the government” approach, however, does not account for what I imagine is his primary concern: a vaccine mandate would be very bad for business.
You can listen to the full interview here:
image: Scott Kirby / Instagram