United Airlines CEO’s Inconsistent Vaccine Argument

United Airlines CEO’s Inconsistent Vaccine Argument

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United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has done more than any other US airline executive when it comes to mandating employee vaccination. He was the first major US airline executive to come out in favor of mandatory employee vaccination, and when the time came, United was the first airline to roll out such a policy.

While I respect the position that Kirby has taken, I can’t help but find some of his recent comments about vaccine mandates to be… curious.

United won’t mandate vaccination for passengers

United’s CEO had an interview with NPR’s Ailsa Chang on Friday about the company’s decision to put unvaccinated employees on leave. The conversation quickly changed from an employee vaccine mandate to the concept of a passenger vaccine mandate.

The point was made that an employee vaccine mandate only goes so far in keeping people safe, when passengers are in close contact with other passengers who may not be vaccinated. Kirby made the argument that mandating vaccination for customers is a government issue, and the airline would only require it with some sort of a government directive.

Chang pushed back, pointing out that plenty of private businesses have started requiring vaccination. Kirby didn’t really have a good answer to that, just arguing that the industry is heavily federally regulated, that it wouldn’t be “appropriate” for the airline to make that decision, that people would still interact with others in the terminal on other airlines who may not be vaccinated, etc.

Here’s the entire transcript of this part of the conversation:

CHANG: Practically speaking, though, I mean, no matter your efforts with vaccinating your employees, they are way outnumbered by all the passengers who board your planes. Are there plans to mandate vaccinations for passengers or require proof of vaccination before they can board your planes, I mean, just in fairness to your employees?

KIRBY: I think that mandating vaccines for passengers is really a government issue. For us to do that, we would probably require some sort of government directive. We have prepared ourselves with technology to be able to upload vaccine cards and track that and implement it if the government ever chooses to go in that direction.

CHANG: Well, I mean, there are certain bars in this country that are mandating vaccination before people can come into the bar. Broadway is mandating vaccines. Why is it up to the government to mandate vaccines when it comes to airlines, but not in those other cases?

KIRBY: Well, we’re, you know, a federally regulated industry. And, you know, people are in terminals. They’re not just our customers. So you go through a security checkpoint, it’s to all airlines. It’s TSA employees. It’s employees at the airport. And so that’s just an environment where I don’t think it’s appropriate for us as an individual business to make that decision and really one that we would need the federal government to take the lead on.

United won’t introduce a passenger vaccine mandate

I don’t follow Kirby’s logic

Kirby’s distinction between requiring employee vaccination and customer vaccination is an odd one:

  • If this is about protecting both employees and customers, then logically the airline should have a vaccine mandate for everyone; generally passengers are in much closer contact with other passengers than with employees, and for that matter employees would be better protected if customers were vaccinated
  • If the airline industry is heavily regulated, as Kirby says, wouldn’t United also wait for the government to mandate employee vaccination? After all, the government controls many aspects of work rules in the airline industry
  • United didn’t wait for the government to mandate vaccines for employees at large companies to announce its own policy, so clearly the airline wasn’t waiting for the government to make any major policy decisions
  • The last quote from Kirby above applies equally whether we’re talking about employee or passenger vaccination, in my opinion
  • Kirby has in previous employee memos written about how “everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated”

So, why is Kirby opposed to a vaccine mandate for customers? Obviously he doesn’t think it’s good for business. While I think this could be a selling point for many people to fly with United, the logistics would admittedly be complicated:

  • Requiring passengers to upload proof of vaccination is yet another thing for airlines to manage, and that’s complicated when we’re talking about a global airline with people from all over the world
  • How would this work in terms of booster shots, vaccination for minors, etc.

I think Kirby is right for requiring employee vaccination, though on some level it seems to me like this is more about logistics, and on some level optics, than anything else. If it were about keeping everyone safe, vaccination would be required for everyone.

While I respect Kirby’s decision not to require vaccination for customers, I find it bizarre that he doesn’t think it’s “appropriate” for a private company to mandate vaccination from customers, even though many businesses have done just that.

I don’t follow Kirby’s logic on a passenger vaccine mandate

Bottom line

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has been the most outspoken US airline CEO when it comes to requiring vaccination for employees. His perspective on passenger vaccination is totally different, though. He states United will only require that if the federal government mandates it, he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the airline to mandate it, and he points out that everyone would still interact with a lot of unvaccinated people in the terminal.

Like I said above, Kirby has done more than other industry executives when it comes to mandating vaccination for employees. I’m not surprised to see the airline isn’t ready to introduce a passenger vaccine mandate yet, I just find his justification to be strange.

Personally I suspect we won’t see a US airline require vaccination, short of a federal mandate.

What do you make of Kirby’s comments on a vaccine requirement for passengers?

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  1. Laura

    Did you know that United is also flying the people that are crossing the borders that haven’t been vaccinated and maybe carrying other diseases to other parts of the U.S. So again there is so much emphasis on U.S law abiding, tax paying citizens to get vaccinated but we have our borders wide open with no requirement for them to get vaccinated what so ever. So please tell me how a few unvaccinated crew members...

    Did you know that United is also flying the people that are crossing the borders that haven’t been vaccinated and maybe carrying other diseases to other parts of the U.S. So again there is so much emphasis on U.S law abiding, tax paying citizens to get vaccinated but we have our borders wide open with no requirement for them to get vaccinated what so ever. So please tell me how a few unvaccinated crew members can make a difference in a situation like this!!
    Last time I checked we live in a America that allows us to have the freedom of choice.

    1. BF

      You do have a freedom of choice. You can choose to find another job or fly another airline. Or take the train.

      Freedom of choice does not mean you can fly or work for an airline and they can't tell you what safety procedures you have to follow.

      I 100% agree with you that there should be a vaccine mandate for people flying into the U.S.

  2. Levy Flight

    UA should just mandate that passengers be vaccinated. It’s easy to validate and everyone on the plane will be more comfortable.

  3. Alan

    Lucky, you really need to get with the times. The current vaccines do not prevent transmission and will never provide herd immunity. Thus mandating them for employees or passengers is pointless.

    1. BF

      Wtf are you talking about. Vaccines significantly reduce the chance you will contract covid and hugely reduce the chance you will be hospitalized or die from covid. The risk of death is 32x higher if you are unvaccinated.

      The fact is that vaccine mandates will lead to more people getting vaccinated and will unquestionably save a large number of lives. You may feel that is not a price worth paying but 1500 people are...

      Wtf are you talking about. Vaccines significantly reduce the chance you will contract covid and hugely reduce the chance you will be hospitalized or die from covid. The risk of death is 32x higher if you are unvaccinated.

      The fact is that vaccine mandates will lead to more people getting vaccinated and will unquestionably save a large number of lives. You may feel that is not a price worth paying but 1500 people are dying in the US a day from covid and the vast majority of those deaths are completely avoidable.

    2. RAH RAH

      Someone woke up on the wrong side f the church this morning.

  4. Anthony

    Perhaps protecting the airline from future lawsuits, where a federal mandate will fall on the government not the airline.

    Quite clever don't you think?

  5. Shutterbug

    If I had the choice I would avoid an airline not requiring full vaccination of staff and passengers as much as I would try to avoid traveling on a 737 MAX.

    1. BF

      Because they are setting a good example and their actions will encourage or persuade more people to get vaccinated and will likely save lives.

      Also fully vaccinated people are less likely to contract covid(although obviously they still can) so there is less chance of you getting covid on a plane full of vaccinated people. That is just a stone cold fact. I repeat, less likely. Not impossible.

  6. Honkbert

    Why pretend that a tested unvaccinated passenger poses a greater risk to others than an untested vaccinated passenger?

  7. Philippe Noel

    Could vaccine requirements for passengers, either though TSA or airlines at large, lead us away from mask mandates for air travel?

    1. Alan

      I think u know the answer to ur question. The CDC already recommends mask usage indoors for everyone.

  8. Schaun

    As far as there being minor disruption and nil resistance, not hardly. Many UAL employees feel like this dictatorial requirement is a violation of hippa laws, individual rights, constitutional religious rights, and a general violation of conscience. What ever happens in the end every other major airline will follow United's lead, lets see how economically pragmatic this fight was worth when there's not enough employees to run the operation, its already strained system wide, not...

    As far as there being minor disruption and nil resistance, not hardly. Many UAL employees feel like this dictatorial requirement is a violation of hippa laws, individual rights, constitutional religious rights, and a general violation of conscience. What ever happens in the end every other major airline will follow United's lead, lets see how economically pragmatic this fight was worth when there's not enough employees to run the operation, its already strained system wide, not a very customer friendly move. IMO

  9. Delta Dawn

    He stopped spraying the planes - he’s just virtue signaling- he doesn’t care for his employees or passengers - pretty sure he got some tax dollars and loans forgiveness at our expense- and look at all the free advertising- then again maybe he didn’t have to pay the fines for over weighing the mail in the millions $$ he collected off the tax payers - he is a real stand up guy

  10. SBarron

    It just isn't appropriate to mandate passenger or, for that matter, employee vaccination. If you've gotten the vaccine you're supposedly safe, but, as the CDC admits, you're still potentially shedding virus at the same rate as the unvaccinated. So the unvaccinated are making a choice with their own health. Why should any business or government get into the business of forcing health choices on individuals? If the vaccine doesn't make you safe, then why mandate...

    It just isn't appropriate to mandate passenger or, for that matter, employee vaccination. If you've gotten the vaccine you're supposedly safe, but, as the CDC admits, you're still potentially shedding virus at the same rate as the unvaccinated. So the unvaccinated are making a choice with their own health. Why should any business or government get into the business of forcing health choices on individuals? If the vaccine doesn't make you safe, then why mandate it? Please hold the line, United!

    1. Eskimo

      Fact check needed. Stop watching Fox or CNN.

    2. BF

      SBarron, it is a fair argument but ultimately there are laws enforced every day to protect individual health. By your argument, all drugs should be legal because it should be the individuals responsibility if they want to risk their health. Do you agree with legalizing heroin and crack cocaine and allowing people to make a choice with their own health? Same with seat belts etc.

      Governments generally do things to save lives or to protect...

      SBarron, it is a fair argument but ultimately there are laws enforced every day to protect individual health. By your argument, all drugs should be legal because it should be the individuals responsibility if they want to risk their health. Do you agree with legalizing heroin and crack cocaine and allowing people to make a choice with their own health? Same with seat belts etc.

      Governments generally do things to save lives or to protect society at large and sometimes that means enforcing mandates or laws. Also, anti-vaxxer's actions do affect others because they fill up the hospitals, waste taxpayer money and divert resources from other people who are sick through no fault of their own.

    3. Kevin

      As a physician that is board certified in Addiction, I actually do think that all drugs should be legalized. And take Narcan out of every EMS system. You want responsibility for your health? Then be responsible. Portugal did it years ago. Right now they have close to the lowest number of overdoses in all of Europe. People think twice when they know that dead is dead. Put the money in the war on drugs into...

      As a physician that is board certified in Addiction, I actually do think that all drugs should be legalized. And take Narcan out of every EMS system. You want responsibility for your health? Then be responsible. Portugal did it years ago. Right now they have close to the lowest number of overdoses in all of Europe. People think twice when they know that dead is dead. Put the money in the war on drugs into rehab. But they won’t, because there is too much money to be made on “the war on drugs”

  11. iamhere

    Agree. An employee could transmit COVID just as much as a passenger. Everyone is in close contact in the plane.

  12. Alex

    Yes, to a federal vaccine mandate for anyone flying! That would eliminate any competition issues and keep us all safer.

  13. derek

    If there was only one airline that required vaccination for passengers and employees and that was United, I would fly United.

    1. David

      The issue is that vaccination rate in the US is about 50/50. If he were to require customers to be vaccinated, that would necessarily exclude 50% of the population, but it wouldn't necessarily make the other 50% of the population pick United for sure (far from it).

      When it comes to employees, there are no shortages when it comes to staffing, so they can easily implement a vaccination policy.

    2. Schaun

      Wrong sir, there most definitely is a shortage, the background checks are extensive. And Denver can't get folks to pass a simple UA, united is offering existing employees 25K to move to Denver to support a desperately needed work force there. Seems like people generally do not want to work, in Houston there are now hiring signs EVERYWHERE!

  14. Abey

    I don’t think it’s buzzard at all, as much as I respect Kirby for requiring vax for employees in the end of the day his job is to generate income and mandating for passengers would result a significant and immediate loss of revenue. He’s also right that it’s a step that should be taken be the government as it’s a public health policy more then a restaurant requiring vax, UA transports a significant amount of passengers and banning them would be a huge step.

  15. Never In Doubt

    It’s some combination of a health insurance/cost and employee staffing play.

    United likely self insures so COVID costs come right off their bottom line. And employees with COVID can’t work, putting pressure on their operations.

    But he can’t *say* that in public.

    1. Sky

      Well Delta pretty much said that with their insurance premium for unvaccinated staff!
      ********
      "The average hospital stay for COVID-19 has cost Delta $50,000 per person," Bastian said in an employee memo. "This surcharge will be necessary to address the financial risk the decision to not vaccinate is creating for our company. In recent weeks since the rise of the B.1.617.2 variant, all Delta employees who have been hospitalized with COVID were not fully vaccinated."

  16. Don

    If you want to be safe from covid on a flight, wear a mask. If you want to be even safer, get vaccinated and wear a mask. If you want to be even safer, wear an n95 and get vaccinated. Anything after that and we are litterally talking about hundreths of a percent difference in your risk from dying of covid whether someone on the plane is unvaccinated or not. At that point, you are...

    If you want to be safe from covid on a flight, wear a mask. If you want to be even safer, get vaccinated and wear a mask. If you want to be even safer, wear an n95 and get vaccinated. Anything after that and we are litterally talking about hundreths of a percent difference in your risk from dying of covid whether someone on the plane is unvaccinated or not. At that point, you are probably getting close to the same chances at that plane crashing.
    People are just being authoritarian at this point.

  17. Jerry

    @Michael
    Do you not read this blog? Or any travel news at all?

  18. Eskimo

    Kirby is correct.

    People who don't understand Kirby is at one of the extreme ends of vaxxers or anti-vaxxers.

  19. Greg

    I think he’s trying to chart a very difficult course. Nobody *wants* to mandate vaccinations. Even the hardest pro-vaxxers (a group in which I count myself) didn’t want mandates, we hoped that people respected the scientific evidence and got the vaccine to protect themselves and others. That didn’t work, and it turned into a political battle just like fluoride in the 40’s.

    So Kirby is hoping that the recently introduced mandates gets the country...

    I think he’s trying to chart a very difficult course. Nobody *wants* to mandate vaccinations. Even the hardest pro-vaxxers (a group in which I count myself) didn’t want mandates, we hoped that people respected the scientific evidence and got the vaccine to protect themselves and others. That didn’t work, and it turned into a political battle just like fluoride in the 40’s.

    So Kirby is hoping that the recently introduced mandates gets the country where it needs to be in terms of vaccinations, and then he doesn’t have to unilaterally require them of passengers. Or he assumes (reasonably) that if the recently introduced mandates don’t work, the government will impose the requirement on airline passengers. Either way he is better off than requiring them unilaterally.

    But if he does require them if passengers, we should assume that a government mandate is imminent, just like the large employer requirement. UA clearly has a good comms link with the White House.

  20. Michael

    This is par for the course for united. I was on the phone with them 5 hours arguing. They cancelled my plane due to schedule change and wouldn’t put me on another flight unless I paid more. Multiple managers point to “policies” listed nowhere in the website or passenger contract carry. Not sure how this is a surprise either. Scott Kirby is full of bull and someone should sue.

    1. Eskimo

      This is on par for my experience too.
      They cancelled my 200-mile basic economy flight last year and I'm trying to get the last Polaris seat from Europe for Thanksgiving. They wouldn’t put me on that flight unless I paid more.

      And what the heck is "passenger contract carry"?

      Without knowing the full story. I can't blame either @Michael or United. (And yes @DCS I'm defending United)

    2. Ivan X

      Without full info, if I had to take a guess, it’s likely United canceled the original flight, offered full refund despite being out of the refund window, as they have been doing for the last year and a half (though it’s easy to accidentally opt into flight credit instead), and the equivalent flight now costs more because it’s closer in. I’ve had this happen and it’s annoying, but I can see it from both perspectives....

      Without full info, if I had to take a guess, it’s likely United canceled the original flight, offered full refund despite being out of the refund window, as they have been doing for the last year and a half (though it’s easy to accidentally opt into flight credit instead), and the equivalent flight now costs more because it’s closer in. I’ve had this happen and it’s annoying, but I can see it from both perspectives. On the one hand, it does end up costing you more (or less, if you’re lucky) to go where you wanted to at the price you originally agreed to pay on the airline you chose. On the other, United is like, hey, we gave you your actual money back because we canceled the flight, what else do you want?

  21. Don

    Funny how seems like everyone is complaining about vaccine rates, but then the most popular places to go are the places with the supposedly lowest vaccine rates (vegas, mexico, florida, texas)
    Don’t see a ton of people wanting to go to SFO, NYC, or DC. Quite the opposite, actually.

    1. Eskimo

      Probably @Don follows a lot of TikTok and Instagram influencers.
      You really can't post a TikTok giving Abe a naughty lap dance on his Lincoln Memorial and get away with it.
      SFO isn't hip anymore and NYC is too dirty.

      Vegas is always Vegas. Mexico is the easiest international getaway. Florida is TikTok worthy. Texas (Austin) is the new west coast.

      Stop following Social Media as news. But trust your blogger and all their credit card recommendations.

    2. UA-NYC

      A really, really stupid post lacking any intelligence whatsoever

  22. Charles

    “Many businesses” require vaccines for customers outside of a government directive?

    Which?

    1. Ivan X

      I've imposed that requirement on my clients for in person appointments. No vaccine, no appointment. Of course they don't have to provide proof, I take them at their word, and my very, very small business consists of me and two others, but still, you asked. I ain't needlessly increasing my odds of infection, however low they are. No objections or cancellations so far; everyone is vaccinated.

    2. Mlou

      Yeah ok keep thinking that. Everyone is lying and saying they are vaccinated. Lmao.

  23. Grogg

    I'm not buying the claim that passenger vaccine mandates would be bad for business. Airfares for fall travel have plummeted because many vaccinated people (myself included) are afraid to travel due to the high community spread of the Delta variant. The recent Southwest companion pass promotion is another example of how weak demand is currently. Even if most vaccinated people are unlikely to get seriously sick from covid, even an asymptomatic case requires one to isolate....

    I'm not buying the claim that passenger vaccine mandates would be bad for business. Airfares for fall travel have plummeted because many vaccinated people (myself included) are afraid to travel due to the high community spread of the Delta variant. The recent Southwest companion pass promotion is another example of how weak demand is currently. Even if most vaccinated people are unlikely to get seriously sick from covid, even an asymptomatic case requires one to isolate. In many (but certainly not all) cases, the perceived risks of travel are a greater obstacle to people traveling than the price of plane tickets. To be clear, I think there is a real risk of getting covid while traveling (not just the perception of a risk), but the important point is that it is the perception of risk that guides travel decisions. I would be much more willing to travel (and would be willing to pay higher fares) if all passengers (or at least all passengers eligible for vaccination) were required to be vaccinated.

  24. Jerry

    Ha..if you think people treat airline employees bad now because of masks, wait until they force them to be injected with a chemical. At least Kirby is smart enough to defer decisions to the government so he can always blame it on them and defuse some of the anger directed at airlines.

  25. Mark

    Imagine the amount of lawsuits from places like your home state that would come if he mandated it for customers. He needs the government to create the guidelines and then fight those battles first. Chang pointing to random bars is a pretty terrible point of comparison to a global airline.

    1. Michael

      How many lawsuits have there been filed since Broadway started requiring that the audience needed to be vaccinated? And what law would a private business be breaking by making it a requirement to do business with them?

  26. mg

    This seems like pretty obviously a commercial decision.

    First, United HQ is in Chicago and with the possible exception of Houston all of the United hubs are in jurisdictions with relatively high rates of vaccination. United was clearly able to do some evaluation of its staff before rolling out the initial vaccine mandate to determine it wouldn’t be that disruptive, and they waited to roll out the “unpaid leave for religious exceptions” rule until they...

    This seems like pretty obviously a commercial decision.

    First, United HQ is in Chicago and with the possible exception of Houston all of the United hubs are in jurisdictions with relatively high rates of vaccination. United was clearly able to do some evaluation of its staff before rolling out the initial vaccine mandate to determine it wouldn’t be that disruptive, and they waited to roll out the “unpaid leave for religious exceptions” rule until they knew that also wouldn’t significantly disrupt operations. It’s reasonable to believe that United employees were already going to be vaccinated at a pretty high rate.

    On the other hand, many United routes service lower vaccine areas, and if anything I suspect the average unvaccinated person may be slightly more inclined to fly right now than the average vaccinated person (pure conjecture, but regions with lower vaccination rates also seem more open and less careful than regions with higher vaccination rates).

    Employer vaccine mandates even when United led the pack were clearly headed towards some degree of common - they were first among airlines but not first overall. Customer vaccine mandates are still relatively rare, outside of restaurants in certain jurisdictions.

    I suspect vaccinated customers are more likely to make positive travel decisions based on employee vaccination mandates than unvaccinated customers are to make negative travel decisions, so the employee mandate has lower cost from that perspective as well.

    For all of these reasons it seems comparatively cheap and commercially beneficial to mandate vaccines for employees, while more expensive to do so for customers. The rest feels like rationalization!

  27. Craig

    Your own arguments are inconsistent. Generally passengers are in contact with very few other passengers, so the risk for passenger-passenger is tiny. Flight attendants come close to dozens, maybe hundreds, of passengers each flight. It is the riskiest non-healthcare profession for catching COVID-19 by far. (see https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/occupations-highest-covid19-risk/) For an airline, mandating vaccination of employees is clearly advantageous. Mandating it for passengers is a calculation regarding the quantity of business they may gain or lose doing...

    Your own arguments are inconsistent. Generally passengers are in contact with very few other passengers, so the risk for passenger-passenger is tiny. Flight attendants come close to dozens, maybe hundreds, of passengers each flight. It is the riskiest non-healthcare profession for catching COVID-19 by far. (see https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/occupations-highest-covid19-risk/) For an airline, mandating vaccination of employees is clearly advantageous. Mandating it for passengers is a calculation regarding the quantity of business they may gain or lose doing so.

  28. Boarding4Tahiti

    That would be a logistical nightmare to set up during check-in and boarding etc. Not everyone has the technological knowledge to simply upload their vaccine card into UA's app. It's a large cost for a small (but indeed significant) benefit. In the short-run, UA would have to command a fare premium in order to lure customers to fly the "fully vaccinated airline" which I doubt will be possible - they will lose money and that's...

    That would be a logistical nightmare to set up during check-in and boarding etc. Not everyone has the technological knowledge to simply upload their vaccine card into UA's app. It's a large cost for a small (but indeed significant) benefit. In the short-run, UA would have to command a fare premium in order to lure customers to fly the "fully vaccinated airline" which I doubt will be possible - they will lose money and that's the purpose of the corporation. Kirby does have ultimate authority when it comes to his employees and they clearly thought it wouldn't affect their business at large. When we talk about customers however, the "Broadway required it" argument doesn't apply. Tons of UA's customers aren't the type to attend Broadway shows - they could care less about a vaccine. Therefore, Kirby responds with the 'federal issue' because when we're talking about an entire population of flyers (either UA or all carriers), that is ultimately something the Gov't should deal with. The purpose of wearing masks and telling people how great the HEPA filters are on planes will become redundant if we need to be vaxxed anyway. I'd be curious what would happen if UA said "you can take off the mask but must be fully vaccinated when flying with us". That might get more positive attention!

Featured Comments Load all 49 comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

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Eskimo

Fact check needed. Stop watching Fox or CNN.

derek

If there was only one airline that required vaccination for passengers and employees and that was United, I would fly United.

Alan

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