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Texas airline pilots warn that vaccine mandates could roil holiday flights

Unions representing pilots at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, both based in Texas, are asking for exemptions to President Joe Biden's pending vaccine mandate, with one of those unions warning that holiday travel could be disrupted if they have to comply.

In a Sept. 24 letter distributed to 15 officials across the FAA, Congress, DOT and others, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 14,000 pilots at American, suggested mandatory vaccinations could cause disruptions across the aviation industry as airlines will be forced to “offer unpaid leaves of absence or, worse, implement mass terminations of unvaccinated pilots.”

“While it is not yet certain which Executive Order will apply to America's airlines, it is apparent that we will be subject to a vaccine mandate in either instance,” wrote APA’s President Eric Ferguson. Ferguson instead said it is "essential" for the White House to make “alternate means of compliance” with the mandate available for professional pilots.

APA’s proposal and where it stands: Earlier this month, Biden announced that his administration will require private businesses with 100 or more employees to get the vaccine or get tested weekly.

APA said some of its members were concerned about compliance because of documented medical reasons as well as “the potential for career-ending side effects” from the vaccine, citing stringent FAA medical tests pilots must pass in order to maintain their commercial pilots license. Alternative means, Ferguson said, could be regular testing of employees or “proof of natural immunity” for unvaccinated pilots that want to keep their jobs.

But that would mean companies would need to foot the bill for the weekly testing requirement. Tests vary widely in price, from $20 to as much as $150, depending on the type of test (rapid vs. PCR, for instance).

United Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines have all mandated vaccines for their workforce and set tight limits for those trying to avoid getting the shot. Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, is tacking an additional $200 per month surcharge onto the company's health care plan for its unvaccinated workers.

At United, at least, the mandate seems to be having an effect. Last week, the airline said that more than 97 percent of its 67,000-strong workforce is now vaccinated following its first-in-class corporate mandate.

Airlines without mandates: Thus far, American has only encouraged its employees to get vaccinated, offering days off and some extra pay. It has stopped offering pay protections under its pandemic leave policy to those who contract Covid while unvaccinated.

Like American, Southwest has yet to set parameters on a vaccine mandate, and is awaiting further details from the administration. "We continue to strongly encourage our employees to seek and obtain vaccination, and to share their vaccination status with us,” Southwest told POLITICO earlier this month.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, its pilot union, remains in a contentious relationship with the airline for the time being over a lawsuit involving claims of unfair labor practices during Covid, but SWAPA's members are aligned with APA on the idea that the vaccine poses undue side effects that could end a pilot's career.

"SWAPA’s stance is that it is each pilot’s right to choose whether or not to get the vaccine," the association said in an email Monday, mirroring direct language from APA's letter. "We are also concerned that the Executive Order’s anticipated 60-day implementation period for mandatory vaccinations could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems for Southwest Airlines and its peers."

What’s next: APA says forcing pilots who’ve pressed on during the pandemic out of their jobs poses increased risk to an industry still reeling from Covid and the surging Delta variant.

Ferguson said he’s hopeful pilots' contributions are recognized as the administration considers “our request for approval of a permanent alternate means of compliance and an operationally feasible implementation period.”

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.

This article originally appeared on POLITICO

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