What’s the Latest With Masks and Vaccines and Planes?
Unvaccinated airline employees are being welcomed back to work on the eve of the mask mandate expiring. What does it all mean?
On Monday, per an internal memo obtained by Fox Business News, the more than 2,200 United Airlines employees who received religious or medical exemptions from having to take the COVID-19 vaccine, and have been out on unpaid leave (with the exception of five who reportedly died) were welcomed back to work.
“As the Omicron surge shows clear signs of receding and as we’ve seen how high the protection remains for those of you who are vaccinated, we’re using that same commitment to safety and science to ensure our policies reflect the broader shift to the endemic stage of the pandemic,” said United Vice President of Human Resources Kirk Limacher.
United was the first airline to a vaccine mandate — a decision that was twice by a federal court, and that resulted in the termination of more than 230 employees.
The decision comes on the heels of the April 18 expiration of the federal mask mandate on airplanes and other modes of public transportation, which — if the airlines have any say in the matter — won’t be extended a fourth time. In a letter to President Biden this past week, trade group Airlines for America wrote: “The high level of immunity in the U.S., availability of high-quality masks for those who wish to use them, hospital-grade cabin air, widespread vaccine availability and newly available therapeutics provide a strong foundation for the Administration to lift the mask mandate and predeparture testing requirements. We urge you to do so now.”
“We are requesting this action not only for the benefit of the traveling public, but also for the thousands of airline employees charged with enforcing a patchwork of now-outdated regulations implemented in response to COVID-19,” the letter, which was signed by the heads of 10 airlines (including United), continued.
Further, in addition to a 57-40 Senate vote to overturn the mask requirement earlier this month, several law suits have been filed in recent weeks — at the hands of both pilots and flight attendants — over masks on planes. The suits, for their part, allege that having to adhere to the mask mandate means the obstruction of normal breathing over many hours and a threat to aviation security when passengers refuse to comply. That is, of course, in spite of a pair of unions representing flight attendants (including at American and United) saying back in February they wanted to see the federal mask mandate extended.
“While more of the world now has access to lifesaving vaccines, we still have a significant portion of the population that are vulnerable, including our youngest passengers,” Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in a statement at the time.
It does stand to reason, however, that concerns over unruly passengers have finally come to outweigh even the fear of contracting COVID. After all, 5,981 reports of unruly passengers were logged by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2021 — 4,290 of them were mask-related incidents.
So will the mandate actually expire come April 18? While there does appear to be some division across the industry, it does seem likely. That said, with airlines allowing unvaccinated employees to come back to work, you can probably expect to see a good number of passengers continue to sport masks out of an abundance of caution — particularly as there is no sign that the U.S. will end testing rules for international travel. In other words: with the very real threat of BA.2 on the horizon, there’s still a very viable chance of getting stuck abroad in the event of a positive COVID test.
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