United Airlines To Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines For All Employees

United pilot getting vaccine
Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

United Airlines became the first U.S. legacy carrier to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for all employees, as the delta coronavirus variant sweeps through North America and threatens the ongoing recovery in air travel demand.

Employees of Chicago-based United will be required to upload a vaccine card showing they are fully inoculated to the company’s employee portal, United CEO Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart wrote in an Aug. 6 staff memo, viewed by Aviation Daily.

Workers must upload their proof of vaccination either five weeks after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approves a COVID-19 vaccine, or five weeks after Sept. 20, depending on which comes first. The executives said they anticipate the FDA is likely to announce its full approval early in September.

Employees who have already been vaccinated and uploaded their records to the company’s web portal before Sept. 20 will receive an additional day’s worth of pay, excluding officers and some unionized workgroups who have already received negotiated compensation.

“Over the last 16 months, we have sent dozens of condolence letters to the family members of United employees who have died from COVID-19,” Kirby and Hart wrote. “We’re determined to do everything we can to try to keep another United family from receiving that letter.”

United’s vaccine policy stands in contrast to its legacy airline rivals, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, neither of which have mandated the vaccine for their employees. A spokesman for American said the company is offering an extra day off and $50 as an incentive for employees who get vaccinated but will not require it. 

A Delta spokeswoman said the airline is “strongly encouraging” its workers to get vaccinated, but not requiring it. The Atlanta-based carrier has had a new-hire vaccination requirement in place since May, however, and the company’s headquarters staff vaccination rate is “87% and climbing,” the spokeswoman added.

Aside from United, the only other U.S. carrier that has plans in place to mandate employee vaccinations is Frontier Airlines, which will require all its workers to be fully inoculated by Oct. 1. Employees who are unable to get vaccinated will be asked for proof of a negative COVID-19 test “on a regular basis,” the airline said. 

“The good news is that the vast majority of our employees have already taken this important step and have gotten vaccinated,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said. “I hope the step we’re announcing today will further increase the percentage of our workforce that’s fully vaccinated.”

The emergence and spread of the delta coronavirus variant are the latest setbacks to the airline industry’s long recovery from the pandemic. As the last major airline to report earnings, Denver-based Frontier on Aug. 4 revised down its forward guidance for 2021 third quarter net income after observing a softening in demand associated with the delta variant. 

Travel demand in the U.S., measured by daily throughput screened by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, has stalled around 21% below 2019 levels since the July 4 holiday, according to Raymond James analyst Savi Syth. 

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.