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The FAA ‘Must Do More’ to Prioritize Pilot Vaccinations

It was with a sigh of relief that Americans woke on the morning of December 11 to find that the Food and Drug Administration had approved the first vaccine against the coronavirus.

The news that Pfizer-BioNtech’s vaccine was not only effective but incredibly safe was a literal shot in the arm for the aviation industry in particular, which had been all but grounded by a year of lockdowns and painstaking quarantine measures.

However, despite the obvious lifeline which vaccination presents to the aviation sector, industry bodies have been slow to capitalize on its benefits. On Thursday, American Airlines told its pilots that they would have to get the vaccine on their own time, despite approval by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for both the Pfizer and Moderna shots.

Admittedly American spokesperson Stacy Day said the airline was encouraging team members to get vaccinated “as opportunities arise for them to do so” but the company is still lacking in any coherent vaccination strategy to protect pilots against the disease. This is largely because there has been little governmental recognition of the pressing need for pilots to be vaccinated.

On December 8, groups representing aviation unions and airlines – including American, United Airlines and Delta Airlines – wrote to all 50 U.S. governors asking them to “prioritize aviation frontline workers for allocation of the vaccine in your upcoming implementation plan”. This has not been done.

Nor has the FAA – the government body responsible for the safety of pilots and everyone else onboard aircraft – stuck its neck out and coordinated vaccinations for airline staff. At present pilots and others working in aviation are not categorized as frontline workers who will receive priority vaccinations, but are rather listed alongside ‘other essential workers’ including housing contractors, lawyers and members of the media.

This categorisaztion ignores the pressing need for pilots to be vaccinated. Not only do they spend their time travelling from place to place but they also work in close proximity to other people: maximising their risk of spreading the coronavirus. There is also a certain irony in pilots – who have already proved so instrumental in distributing the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – not getting a shot before people who work in IT, who are also listed by the CDC as ‘other essential workers’.

Furthermore, the likelihood is that vaccination will soon become an essential requirement for any pilot intending to travel internationally. Sharona Hoffman, co-director of Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, predicts it is “very possible” that countries like New Zealand will soon be demanding proof of vaccination from anyone entering the country. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has referred to vaccination as a “necessity” for the future of air travel, while AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes forsees no Asian country allowing travellers in without a visa.

Airlines have been vital to distributing vaccines but pilots are not currently being prioritised to receive the shots

If pilots are unable to do their job without being vaccinated, then it is imperative that airlines and government regulators work together to facilitate a return to the skies. Already, Delta CEO Ed Bastian has referred to the advent of mass vaccination as a “turning point” in opening up international travel, but this point won’t be reached unless those flying the planes can themselves be vaccinated.

What is required, therefore, is coordination between the FAA, airlines and pilots unions to ensure that as many workers are vaccinated as quickly as possible. Since FAA guidelines state that anyone receiving the vaccine not fly until 48 hours later (a common industry requirement for all vaccines), this means creating a properly managed schedule to guarantee pilots have the time to get properly vaccinated – rather than just dipping out on their lunchbreaks.

It also means procuring enough vaccines to get ahead of any potential travel restrictions, which experts predict will come into force over the next few months. And finally it means educating airline workers about the importance of vaccination – not only to their health but to their livelihoods – and requiring them to get vaccinated in order to do their jobs. This last step is vital and will require cooperation from pilots unions who have so far been reticent to mandate vaccinations despite their importance to the industry.

The past year has been a catastrophe for the aviation industry; but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Though it still seems a distant glow, mass vaccination is the only realistic long-term strategy in ensuring a return to the skies for passengers and pilots alike.

The sooner this is recognized, the better it will be for everyone.

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