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Pilots at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines claim special status in seeking exemptions from President Biden's Covid-19 vaccine mandates. The move pits the administration's drive to boost vaccination rates against a potentially bumpy holiday travel season.

The debate over Covid-19 vaccine mandates has reached a new fever pitch with the unions representing pilots at two of the largest U.S. carriers seeking exemptions from President Biden’s new mandates.

Both the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents crews at American Airlines, and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) have separately requested exemptions from the federal government citing the “unique” health standards commercial pilots are held to under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. And if the exemptions are not granted, APA President Captain Eric Ferguson warns that the busy holiday travel season many airlines are betting on for a year-end boost may not be as smooth as hoped if pilots are out getting their jabs.

“We are not pro- or anti-vaccine, we are not anti-vaccine mandate necessarily as it pertains to everybody else but as it pertains to your job — you need to have the option to not get vaccinated,” Ferguson said in a podcast to pilots on September 24. APA sent its letter seeking the exemption to federal officials the same day.

SWAPA took a firmer line, with a spokesperson saying the union believes that “it is each pilot’s right to choose whether or not to get the vaccine.”

The requests come as Covid-19 vaccines have emerged as a new battleground in the travel industry. United Airlines came out early mandating vaccines for its staff and now 98.5 percent of its more than 84,000-strong workforce have gotten their jabs. Delta Air Lines has taken a more laissez faire approach by not outright mandating vaccinations but adding a $200 monthly fee to employee health plans for those who do not get their shots. More than 82 percent of Delta’s more than 75,000 staff are vaccinated.

The Biden administration is pushing hard to get more Americans vaccinated against Covid-19. Despite an early global lead in vaccinations, the number of people in the U.S. getting their shots has plateaued while other countries that got a later start have pulled ahead. Only 55 percent of Americans were fully inoculated against the virus as of Monday, though the rate was nearly 65 percent for those over 12 years of age, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

“We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin,” President Biden said when he unveiled mandates for all federal contractors and businesses with more than 100 employees earlier in September. While the details of both mandates have yet to be finalized, most airlines — including American and Southwest — expect to be covered by one or both due to their size and importance of government travel contracts to their businesses.

In response to Biden’s orders, American CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom told staff on September 10 that they believe the airline will be covered by the mandates, and hope that “more and more team members make the decision to get vaccinated against Covid-19.”

An American spokesperson declined to say what percentage of the airline’s staff have their jabs.

Responding to questions over why United has achieved such a high vaccination rate compared to American, Captain Ferguson blamed the airline and told pilots that it was primarily the result of their poor safety net in terms of long-term disability benefits.

“The fear of loss is more powerful than the hope of gain. [For] our pilots, the fear of loss — and the loss of their medical certification on the backdrop of this pandemic — is greater,” he said. He pointed to American’s plans to invest in Gol and JetSmart in South America, as well as incentives to attract and retain pilots at its wholly-owned regional carriers as money that could be used to provide a better safety net for the airline’s pilots.

A spokesperson for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association said they view their long-term disability plan as lagging other competitors and are working on improving this. They added that 91 percent of United pilots were vaccinated before the airline mandated the shots in August.

Story updated with comments from the United chapter of ALPA.

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Tags: american airlines, Covid vaccine, southwest airlines

Photo Credit: American and Southwest pilots want exemptions from President Biden's vaccine mandates. IMF Photo/Cory Hancock / Flickr

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