American's pilot union leader rejects 'anti-vaccine' label, predicts 90% will be vaccinated
American Airlines pilots have been in the headlines this week after warning that enforcing a federal vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 workers could create holiday travel chaos at the carrier.
But despite that warning — and after publicly calling for an exemption from that federal vaccine mandate — Allied Pilots Association president, Capt. Eric Ferguson, insisted that American Airlines pilots are not anti-vaccine. Further, the union leader predicted that 90% of pilots will likely be vaccinated within a month.
Earlier this week, the union warned that nearly 30% of pilots at American were not vaccinated as it raised concern about the new federal mandate. That stands in stark contrast to news this week from United, which said more than 99% of its U.S.-based workers overall complied with the company vaccine mandate the airline put in place last month.
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“We are not anti-vaccine and we are not anti-mandate,” said Ferguson in a rare interview with TPG. “We are in favor of alternate means of compliance to assure safety with regard to the virus.” According to Ferguson, those means include frequent testing, proof of immunity for those who have had the virus, and enhanced mask requirements where necessary.
“The science supports vaccines,” said Ferguson, who visited Charlotte on Thursday to meet with pilots in the airport, “But the choice is between a pilot and their doctor. As such, if somebody tells me that they are being advised not to get vaccinated, it’s not for me or APA to judge. The most important thing is that people are well for work.”
Ferguson said he is fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and plans to get a booster when it becomes available. But he noted that some people react poorly to the vaccine. An intense reaction by a pilot could result in a loss of FAA certification, he postulated. “A doctor, a lawyer or a journalist can go on working,” after a bad reaction, he said, while “a pilot might not be able to fly.”
Should an adverse reaction occur — something that's been extremely rare among the general population — American pilots’ disability pay is capped at $8,000 monthly, Ferguson said, about half of the Delta cap.
Elsewhere: 99.5% of United employees have now complied with the vaccine mandate
Ferguson estimated that about 4,000 of American’s 14,000 pilots, or slightly more than 30%, have not yet been vaccinated. He said vaccine reluctance is generally distributed along predictable regional lines. “It appears to be by latitude,” he said, while declining to provide numbers by base. American’s largest pilot base is at Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas.
Asked whether unvaccinated pilots are likely to be supporters of former president Donald Trump, Ferguson said, “We are absolutely not pro- or anti-Trump. This is not a pilots’ vehicle to support Trump.”
Ferguson also said that United pilots, who are nearly all vaccinated, are “outliers” in the airline industry. He was responding to a tweet by Capt. Todd Insler, president of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association. “United pilots are 100% vaccinated and won’t need to deal with exemptions or disruptions,” Insler tweeted.
Responded Ferguson, “They appear to be a singular example.”
While American and Southwest pilots sought exemptions from President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate, Insler noted, “I guess that’s got to be awkward asking for exemptions from the government that helped the industry stay in business."
APA has said that if American Airlines mandates vaccines for its employees, that could result in a shortage of pilots during the upcoming holidays. Referring to weather-related flight disruptions during the summer, Ferguson said: “It’s been demonstrated that a minor misalignment between pilot supply and demand might have consequences for the airline.”
American pilots, who are currently in contract negotiations, plan airport demonstrations in Dallas, Los Angeles and Miami in October and November and are likely to demonstrate in Charlotte as well.
Ferguson's estimate of a 90% vaccination rate largely reflects the American Airlines incentive program that provides benefits for pilots who are vaccinated by Nov. 1. For those pilots, the airline offers either a day of pay for each shot or time off to accommodate getting a vaccine as well as for FAA-mandated recovery time.
For other vaccinated employees, American will provide an extra day of pay this year, or a vacation day next year, plus $50 towards a gift card or the equivalent, for vaccinated employees. Additionally, a change in American policy will mean that only vaccinated employees are eligible for company-provided pandemic leave for days off related to COVID.
But the incentives for non-pilot employees ends at midnight CT on Friday, and the airline has said it will not be extended.
American spokesman Matt Miller said he expects that many vaccinated employees will provide proof of vaccination before the Friday night deadline. So far, American has not publicly provided the percentage of vaccinated employees.