Thursday, December 9, 2021


With the holiday travel season upon us and many airlines facing pilot and groundworker shortages, why would United CEO Scott Kirby pick a needless, nasty fight with his employees over mandated coronavirus vaccinations?

Since August, Mr. Kirby grounded more than 300 of his most experienced pilots and fired or imposed draconian, retaliatory policies on nearly 2,000 United employees who exercised their civil rights by requesting vaccine exemptions.

President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates are crumbling in the courts. Many public and private businesses are relaxing employee rules, allowing negative workers to stay on the job. Not at United, where Mr. Kirby is more focused on delivering the shallow marketing line of “100% vaccinations” than respecting his workers’ medical concerns or religious beliefs.

When Mr. Kirby announced he intended to make United the first 100% vaccinated U.S. carrier, the proclamation was sold to the public as a safety measure. It quickly became obvious his words were nothing more than a marketing ploy to increase traffic and profits.

United pilots were no longer deemed safe to fly simply because we placed our faith and our health concerns ahead of an unnecessarily harsh and illegally implemented vaccine mandate. Never mind the fact we were safely flying passengers the day prior.

CEO Kirby is the only leader imposing an unreasonable vaccine mandate. Delta Airlines instituted a reasonable testing protocol, while American and Southwest say no employee will be terminated over vaccine status. But Mr. Kirby’s answer to his employees is the insulting offer of indefinite, unpaid leave. To make matters worse, United pilots are prohibited from seeking other flying jobs while the airline is terminating workers’ medical benefits and stripping some workers’ seniority.

As United employees lose their jobs, the hypocritical and arbitrary enforcement of the airline’s rule is further exposed. Unvaccinated pilots from other airlines still travel in United’s flight deck jump seats. Unvaccinated London-based flight attendants routinely intermix with domestic flight attendant crews. And, of course, United’s passengers continue to make their own vaccine choices.

We formed Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom (AE4HF.org) to help those fighting for reasonable employer accommodations. Today, we represent almost 4,000 transportation workers from airlines, rail and trucking firms across all faiths. Engaging a top constitutional law firm, United employees filed a lawsuit on behalf of 2,000 of our members in federal court in the Northern District of Texas, where Judge Mark Pittman made it abundantly clear that due to Mr. Kirby’s actions, the legal fight is far from over.

“To be sure, the Court is disturbed by United’s seemingly calloused approach to its employees’ deeply personal concerns with injecting a foreign substance into their bodies,” Judge Pittman declared. “This is especially true since United stated on the record that 99% of its employees are vaccinated and that there is virtually no chance to transmit COVID-19 on its planes. United has thus instituted a regime in which nothing short of complete compliance with its commands will suffice.”

Judge Pittman added, “Any dissenters will be given the trifling pittance of indefinite unpaid leave. United’s mandate thus reflects an apathy, if not antipathy, for many of its employees’ concerns and a dearth of toleration for those experiencing a diversity of thought.”

Further, the Judge took exception to the way in which Mr. Kirby derided workers’ legitimate medical and religious concerns. “For instance, Plaintiffs showed a video where United’s CEO Scott Kirby expressed skepticism and apparent disdain for any religiously motivated exemption requests.”

“We treat everyone with respect. We listen first,” United’s “Working Together” guidelines claim. “We work to achieve a workplace free of discrimination and harassment on the basis of age, citizenship, color, disability, gender, gender identity, genetic information, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, sexual orientation …”

While it may look good on paper, the policy has not been followed since the mandate was adopted. We implore CEO Scott Kirby to stop our coworkers’ needless firing, punishment and humiliation. For those terminated or placed on leave because they chose to defend their faith or their medical autonomy, there is nothing “Friendly” about United Airlines this holiday season.

• Captains Sherry Walker and Laura Cox are the cofounders of Airline Employees 4 Health Freedom.  

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