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Airline pilots push back on vaccine mandates


United Airlines had planned to place about 2,000 employees on unpaid leave for seeking an exemption from its vaccine mandate, but a federal judge in Texas is temporarily putting that plan on hold. Meanwhile, pilots at Southwest and American Airlines have also gone to court to try to block their employers' vaccine mandates, citing - among other concerns - that the vaccine's side effects could make them medically unable to fly. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In order to fly a commercial jetliner, pilots like American Airlines' Dennis Tajer must repeatedly meet strict physical fitness standards

DENNIS TAJER: About every six months for a captain like myself, we have to go through a physical and, of course, report any issues if we have had any since our last physical.

SCHAPER: Tager is a spokesman for American's pilots union, and he's one of about 10,000 American Airlines pilots who are fully vaccinated. But...

TAJER: Some of our pilots - we have about 4,000 - are holding off on it because many are concerned about long-term effects of the vaccine.

SCHAPER: The pilots' unions at both American and Southwest note that the FAA prohibits pilots from flying for 48 hours after getting a COVID vaccine shot because of potential short-term side effects, including fever, aches and other flu-like symptoms. Tager says some pilots are concerned there could also be long-term side effects that could cause them to fail their physicals and lose their medical certification.

TAJER: Because once you lose your FAA medical, you're not flying. Your career is over.

SCHAPER: But numerous medical experts say such concerns are completely unfounded.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Right now, on the basis of literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of vaccinations that we've had, the safety of these vaccines have been clearly established

SCHAPER: White House Chief COVID-19 medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.

FAUCI: I'm sure there is a very, very, very, very rare exception, but the long-term effects are really essentially nonexistent.

SCHAPER: And Fauci says the short and long-term effects of getting sick with COVID-19 are much more career threatening.

FAUCI: Getting COVID is far, far worse than getting vaccinated for absolutely certain.

SCHAPER: And it should be noted that pilots are already required to get other vaccines, especially those who fly internationally. Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt notes that many of the pilot protests against vaccine mandates are in states like Texas and Florida, where there is widespread political opposition to the mandates. But he says vaccines are fundamental to the airline industry's recovery.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: These vaccines enable people to travel more freely. They allow borders that have been closed to reopen.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, some pilots and some other American Airlines employees protested the vaccine mandate outside of the company's Fort Worth headquarters last week. Meanwhile, Southwest pilots' union president, Casey Murray, denies the pilots there staged a sick-out in protest this past weekend when an operational meltdown forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights. And he told NPR that the union did not take Southwest to court because pilots are anti-vaccine.

CASEY MURRAY: It was really to force the company to come and talk to us. We've had almost zero discussions with them over the past 10 months of what we all knew was coming, which was a mandate.

SCHAPER: But Murray warns that if the courts don't block the vaccine mandate and Southwest fires the pilots who refused to get vaccinated by December 8, that could lead to many more flight cancellations over the busy holiday season. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.