Airline’s order for shots upsets workers
Hundreds of employees at American protest outside its headquarters, many risking jobs
Hundreds of American Airlines workers and supporters crowded outside the company’s corporate headquarters in Fort Worth on Thursday holding signs reading “Mandates won’t fly” and “Don’t fire my Dad” to protest a vaccine mandate issued last week under pressure from the White House.
Most were employees — pilots and flight attendants in uniforms, ramp agents, engineers and others — who are growing increasingly frustrated with the company over ultimatums that they be vaccinated or fired to comply with federal rules.
Many were risking their jobs protesting in front of the airline’s headquarters, holding signs and yelling to cars entering and leaving the campus.
“I’m gonna have to leave if that’s what it comes to,” said Terry Smith, a 29-year pilot who flies Airbus A321 jets for American and is based at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. “I don’t think I’ll apply for an exemption because I don’t think it will be granted.”
American told employees Wednesday that they have until Nov. 24 — the day before the traditionally busy Thanksgiving holiday travel weekend — to submit proof that they’re fully vaccinated. It’s the same deadline that Dallas-based Southwest Airlines gave to employees to turn in documentation.
In recent days, it became increasingly clear that the country’s major airlines would have to give in to the Biden administration mandate for vaccinations for all employees working for federal contractors. American and Southwest have contracts with the federal government carrying mail and transporting military members, among other deals.
New York-based JetBlue Airways and Seattle-based Alaska Airlines have also issued mandates during the last week.
“To be clear, if you fail to comply with the requirement, the result will be termination from the company,” American said in a memo to employees this week.
The vaccination mandates come 19 months into a global pandemic that is showing little signs of letting up as children are back in school, college students have returned to classes, and the fall and winter cold and flu season sets in.
The change of policy at airlines has drawn consternation from employees and unions at American and Southwest. For months, both companies had resisted mandatory vaccine policies in favor of incentives for workers. Delta Air Lines is the only major carrier that has not complied with the White House mandate.
Meanwhile, employee opposition is growing on covert social media sites such as Telegram that allow users to gather anonymously and share views on the vaccine mandates and plan events such as Thursday’s protest in Fort Worth.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association amended a recent lawsuit against the company to include a protest over the vaccine mandate. The union that represents Southwest’s mechanics issued a statement opposing the vaccine mandate on contractual grounds.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots, is hoping to get an alternative to mandatory vaccination for pilots unwilling to be inoculated, union spokesman Dennis Tajer said. The Biden administration’s COVID-19 plan allows frequent testing for unvaccinated employees at companies with more than 100 workers.
Union leaders also pointed to the timing of American’s deadline, saying the airline could start issuing termination notices right before one of the busiest travel weekends of the year. American and other airlines have already struggled this year with staffing and are hiring thousands more workers to make up for shortages.
About 70 percent of American’s pilots are vaccinated, higher than the national average. An American spokesman said a majority of the company’s 100,000 employees are vaccinated.
American has about 30,000 workers in North Texas, while Southwest has about 10,800.
Biden administration mandates call for all employees at airlines to be vaccinated.
“We are not anti-vaccine,” Tajer said. “We have about 4,000 pilots that have not been vaccinated by choice, and not all of them are against a vaccine.”
Pilots have stringent medical regulations to be allowed to fly by Federal Aviation Administration rules. Issues such as diabetes and heart disease cause a pilot to lose a license.
“I don’t get calls from the stereotypes that are anti-vaccine, it’s from normal people trying to make tough decisions that affect their livelihoods,” Tajer said.
There are options for employees at American and Southwest to get a vaccine exemption based on medical or “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Denial of those exemptions already has resulted in lawsuits around the country.
Thursday’s protest featured a mix of anti-vaccine signs and the polarizing political language that has dominated many debates in recent years.
Some had flags that said “Proud American Christians” and “Don’t tread on me” and others had signs that blamed President Joe Biden.
Several employees, who asked not to be named because American doesn’t allow workers to talk with the media, said they’re skeptical of the effectiveness of the vaccine and unreported side effects.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains there are no documented longterm side effects from any of the approved COVID-19 vaccines.
Not all airline employee groups have questioned the vaccine program.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 25,000 flight attendants at American, said it is pushing airline management to make sure that the company abides by reasonable requests for exemptions.
Several APFA members were among those protesting at the rally, including some with more than three decades of experience who said they would be willing to be fired before receiving a vaccine.
“We’ve heard concerns from members,” said a statement from APFA spokesman Paul Hartshorn. “While APFA believes vaccination is our best defense against illness or death from COVID-19, we fully recognize that some of our members have very strong concerns or beliefs regarding the COVID-19 vaccination.”