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Can Airlines Win the Vaccine Mandates Battle?

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed virtually every type of business and industry in a no-win situation since the virus raged in 2020 and beyond. The airline industry was impacted as negatively as any other industry when travel bans and stay-in-place orders by federal and state government agencies began to attempt to control the spread of the virus. As vaccines began to arrive in early 2020, executives of major U.S. airlines hopefully struggled to resume regular airline services across the country and around the world, but the new political climate and changing governmental pandemic policies prevented many American companies from putting the calamity behind them.

When President Joe Biden mandated that all federal workers must be vaccinated or be fired, not everyone understood the effect his mandates would have on private companies. The requirement  was to be applied to companies that have contracts with the United States government as well as workers directly employed by the government. On October 4, 2021, Southwest Airlines announced that it would follow the federal vaccine directive and require all employees to be vaccinated by December 8, 2021, or have their employment terminated.

Soon after the announcement the executives at Southwest modified the policy. The revised policy permitted exemptions for employees who objected to getting the vaccine based on religious or medical reasons. “This is a change from what was previously communicated. Initially, we communicated that these Employees would be put on unpaid leave and that is no longer the case,” said a company spokesperson. If the modifications to the policy sought to defuse employees’ objections to what some saw as unnecessary and unlawful intrusion into private matters, it didn’t work. The vast majority, about 80 percent, of Southwest employees elected to receive the vaccination prior to the deadline but few openly speak of supporting employer-imposed mandates concerning personal health decisions.

It is not unusual for governmental branches and agencies to implement unpopular laws and regulations on the public by passing-off compliance by-way-of employers. In many such instances the private sector business community may disagree with the law but feel that non-compliance would just as negatively impact operations. “You can have a bad law that companies disagree with, but it’s easier to deal with a law you don’t like that you understand than uncertainty,” says corporate lawyer Rogge Dunn. “With all the legal challenges going on, one day you implement a policy and then three days later, or three weeks later, a court overrules that, and then you’re back to square one. A week later, it may change again.”

Pilots’ labor unions sought to block the mandates in favor of other alternatives but U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn denied the request by the airline’s pilot union to issue a temporary restraining order against the airline’s requirement. After the ruling, Southwest found it necessary to cancel 27% of its planned weekend flights, citing issues with weather and air traffic control that did not require widespread groundings at other airlines. The Southwest Airline Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents nearly 10,000 pilots, denied that its members were the cause of the cancellations but the inconvenienced Southwest customers cared little who was responsible. Talk about a business sector being placed between a rock and a hard place?

In the past, airline travelers have demonstrated a willingness to support unprecedented inconvenience in order to assure the safety of flying. Airlines that cooperated and supported restrictive security measurers after the attacks on September 11, 2001, were able to market the actions as an effort to ensure consumers’ safety, but the imposition of unpopular and misunderstood post-pandemic mandates, without some advanced public consensus, will do little to instill confidence and favor in either elected officials or the airlines who often find themselves promoting unpopular and unmarketable campaigns to enforce them.