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Employee vaccine mandate is ‘about saving lives,’ United Airlines CEO Kirby says

Vaccines are a ‘silver bullet,’ and only relying on employee COVID-19 testing would compromise safety says United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby. That’s why the airline is the first major carrier to mandate vaccines among their employees, he says. Kirby spoke with William Brangham about his company’s policy.

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  • William Brangham:

    We turn our focus upward now, how COVID is causing turbulence in the airline industry.

    United Airlines is the first to require COVID vaccines for all its 67,000 U.S. employees. They remain the only major carrier to do so, but it does join a growing list of big businesses, Walmart, Google, Tyson Foods, that are requiring workers to get the shot.

    United's CEO, Scott Kirby, met with President Biden yesterday to discuss the pandemic response.

    And Mr. Kirby joins me now.

    Very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    I wonder if you could just walk me through a little bit of the — in your thinking process, the pros and cons, as you weighed them, about this decision.

  • Scott Kirby:


    Well, thank you. It's great to be here.

    I'd start, on the con side, it's the same thing that leaders across the country are still wrestling with, worried about attrition, worried about a tight hiring market, worried about the public reaction, the employee reaction. All of those things are real and legitimate risks.

    But, on the pro side, it's about safety and about saving lives. And the reality is, the fact that you're about 300 times more likely to die if you're unvaccinated. And once you have that statistic in your mind, at least for me, as a leader, that trumps everything else. It trumps all the cons. It trumps all the risks, and really leaves you with no choice but to require the vaccine.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that some employers and states and cities that have made this requirement offer an option. You can get the shot or you can submit to random, regular testing.

    Are you doing that option?

  • Scott Kirby:

    We are not.

    And the reason we aren't because, at United Airlines, we always say safety is our number one core value. And we say it. We mean it. And that's much better than not requiring the vaccine, but it's still a compromise on safety. There's no question that people are safer if everyone is vaccinated. And we don't compromise on safety at United Airlines.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned that one of the cons might be possible blowback. Have you received any blowback?

    Like, what has the reaction been?

  • Scott Kirby:

    I have been pleasantly surprised at the reaction. There are certainly some people that have strongly held views and oppose the vaccine requirement. And I respect their views and respect that perspective.

    But there's a much larger group of the population that surprised me at how enthusiastically positive they are and appreciative that we were willing to take this step and make this decision for everyone.

    And so my e-mail inbox, at least from employees, has run about 10-1 in favor. Now, again, lots of people that are really strongly opposed, and I accept that, but more people that support it than are opposed to it.

  • William Brangham:

    Does that surprise you? Because we have seen such hesitancy about mandates.

    As I mentioned, there are businesses that are doing this. There are states. But does that reaction surprise you?

  • Scott Kirby:

    It did. And it pleasantly surprised me. But it surprised me because you hear about the vaccine hesitancy, and you hear the people that are passionately opposed to the requirement.

    What you don't hear from are all the people that are more the silent majority, I think, who really think this is important. And what's been meaningful to me, and I have gotten a dozen of those letters that are very personal, because they talk about losing a loved one.

    And so it means so much more to them because they have experienced that actual loss. And that's meant a lot to me to get those e-mails from employees.

  • William Brangham:

    Anyone that has been on an airline knows that there is no more crowded workspace than inside of an airplane these days.

    Do you wish you could also get your passengers to follow a similar mandate? Would you encourage or promote that idea that, in order to get on a plane, you have to prove a negative COVID test or prove your vaccine?

  • Scott Kirby:

    Well, first, I'd say, an airplane, amazingly enough, despite being crowded, is the safest place you can be and be around other people in an indoors environment.

    It's really because of the airflow on an airplane, and the fact that it's refiltered through HEPA-grade filters 20 to 30 times an hour. And so it's literally the safest place you can be and be inside around other people.

    So, while I feel good about the safety on the airplane, I think everyone in the country should get vaccinated. I think it's unlikely that here domestically there is going to be a vaccine requirement. I do think it would require government directives to make that happen.

    I think that will be common. It already is common internationally, but unlikely to happen here in the United States. But I think the right thing for all of us across society is for everyone to get vaccinated, put this in the rearview mirror, and get back to living normal life.

  • William Brangham:

    Well, what about random tests?

    I know a friend just came back from Spain. He had to demonstrate that he had a test, a negative test, within three days before boarding a plane. Would you be in favor of something like that for all your passengers?

  • Scott Kirby:

    Yes, again, I think it's unlikely that we would do something like that, and random tests in particular.

    Testing, when you have this much of an outbreak in the country, is really an indicator of what's been happening in the past, instead of something that's forward-looking.

    We have a solution to this crisis. We finally have the silver bullet that worked. And the silver bullet is vaccines. And we should stop fiddling around the edges, and we should just all get vaccinated and put this behind us.

  • William Brangham:

    I hear what you're saying, that you did this for a health and safety reason as the principal reason.

    But do you think that this gives you a competitive advantage, meaning are we going to see United ads or banner saying, I don't know, fly the vaccinated skies?

  • Scott Kirby:

    Absolutely, unequivocally not.

    I do not want this to be a competitive advantage. I hope every airline in the country winds up doing this. I think, ultimately, they will. We started thinking about it a little earlier. It's the right thing. It's not just about airlines. It's all corporate America. I hope all leaders will do the same thing and follow this.

    This — safety should never be a competitive issue. Safety should be, figure out the best practice and then help everyone get to the same point.

  • William Brangham:

    I'd like to ask you about a slightly separate issue, which is, we have all seen these examples of airport and airline staff being harassed and assaulted at times.

    From a management perspective, do you feel that you're doing enough to protect your people from this chaotic, dangerous behavior out there?

  • Scott Kirby:

    Well, I have seen a lot of the news reports.

    But I would say, at United Airlines, our mask incidents are down 50 percent compared to the start of the year. Our in-flight incidents are lower than they were in the pre-COVID era. And that's because we have worked closely with our flight attendants. We have an amazing group.

    The union has been supportive. Really worked on the training and given them the tools and the standard operating procedures to help de-escalate situations and avoid having things escalate.

    So, at United Airlines, like, we don't have zero issues, but we don't have anything unusual happening at United. It's really a testament to the professionalism of our flight attendants. We're in a different situation, I think, than what you see a lot of the reporting at some other airlines.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, thanks for joining us.

  • Scott Kirby:

    Thanks for having me.

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