The CEOs of Southwest, American and Delta Airlines are not planning to require their unvaccinated employees to receive coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly issued a memo indicating that Southwest continues to encourage its workers to get vaccinated but does not intend to enforce a mandate. “Obviously, I am very concerned about the latest delta variant, and the effect on the health and safety of our employees and our operation, but nothing has changed,” Kelly said.

While American Airlines encourages passengers and staff to receive the vaccine, CEO Doug Parker told the New York Times that a vaccine mandate was not on the company’s agenda. “We certainly encourage it everywhere we can, but we’re not putting mandates in place,” said Parker.

Delta Airlines has also announced it would not mandate vaccination, at least not until the vaccine has been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “It’s very difficult for us to come in and mandate a vaccine that isn’t even federally approved yet. The authorization hasn’t been final yet, so stay tuned,” Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian told CNBC.

In a separate interview with Fox 5, Bastian explained that a significant portion of Delta Airlines staff is in fact already vaccinated.

“We’re almost 75 percent vaccinated already,” Bastian said. “And if you think about that, you have probably some portion – maybe call it 5 to 10 percent of our employee base – that is going to have some medical or religious reason why they’re not getting vaccinated, you’re really down to a relatively modest number, maybe 10 to 20 percent of the unvaccinated, that you can drive with a mandate.”

In May, Delta Airlines became the first major U.S. airline to introduce a vaccine mandate for all new hires only – a decision that was also taken by United Airlines in mid-June.

United Airlines to employees: Get vaccinated or risk termination

Other major airlines in the U.S. have already made vaccination compulsory for all their staff. On Aug. 6, United Airlines became the first U.S. airline to impose a vaccine mandate on all its employees.

The company announced that all of its 67,000 U.S.-based employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk termination. They need to show proof of vaccination either by Oct. 25 or five weeks after the full approval of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines by the FDA, whichever comes first. United also requires all non-vaccinated employees to wear masks at company offices.

The mandate does not apply to regional airlines that fly shorter routes for United.

United CEO Scott Kirby talked about the “incredibly compelling” evidence of the COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness in a letter he wrote on Aug. 6 to the airline’s employees where he made known his decision while acknowledging the controversial aspects of this policy.

Union representing over 40 percent of United employees not sold on vaccine mandate

Three unions at United issued statements supporting the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. But the International Association of Machinists, which represents 28,000 United ground employees, said that it is still gathering members’ views about the vaccine mandate.

“We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees,” said Kirby, who justified this measure by describing the vaccine mandate as a safety measure. “The facts are crystal clear. Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated.”

Kirby said in January he wanted to make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory and that other companies should do the same. 

Other airlines follow United’s lead in imposing vaccine mandate

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Airlines and low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines both announced COVID vaccine mandates for their employees just a few hours after Kirby’s announcement.

“There is no greater demonstration of our values than ensuring the safety of others,” Hawaiian Airlines CEO Peter Ingram stated in a memo sent out to his employees. Ingram said Hawaiian Airlines employees will have to be fully vaccinated by November 1.

Frontier Airlines, on the other hand, set the deadline for its employees to get vaccinated on October 1.

Ending the COVID-19 pandemic is especially crucial for airlines, which are among the hardest-hit industries during the pandemic. While summer vacation bookings surpassed what most executives were expecting, Frontier said the fast-spreading delta variant is starting to weigh on demand. 

Other airlines have indicated that they are considering making vaccination mandatory for their staff.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines recently sent out a memo to its employees that read: As an employer with a duty to keep you safe and given the contagiousness and health risks of the COVID-19 virus and its variants, we are within our rights to make this decision and to ask you for information about your vaccine status.

Airlines requiring their staff to be vaccinated have said they are accepting exemptions under medical or religious grounds, though employees who qualify for these will still have to undergo regular testing for COVID-19.

Labor unions push back as Biden endorses vaccine mandate in business sector

President Joe Biden recently met virtually with the United CEO and other business executives in a bid to encourage more companies to follow their lead and require workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Biden has asked the private sector to help accelerate vaccination against the virus. The president earlier announced new requirements for federal workers to either get vaccinated against the virus or get tested regularly, and he called on businesses to take a similar approach.

Workers across the U.S. were not happy with Biden’s latest moves.

Employee unions in New York came out firing after the city announced it will call for all employees to be vaccinated. “We are absolutely against an absolute mandate to vaccinate everyone,” New York Health Union President Henry Garrido said.

After the New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City gave all of its employees until Sept. 1 to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be terminated, the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East union announced that it would oppose vaccine mandates. 1199SEIU is composed of more than 450,000 members across six states and the District of Columbia.

“We are not in agreement with a mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine,” George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, said in a statement. “We agree that vaccination is an important tool to help us move forward, but mandating vaccination is not, nor will it ever, be the answer.”

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