Avoiding “the Jab”

A friend, whom we’ll call George, messaged me a few days ago. He explained that he’s decided to draw a line in the sand and will not get a COVID-19 vaccine. Ever. He expects to be administratively discharged from the USAF Reserves, and is worried that he’ll also be fired from his flying job at one of the world’s premier Part 121 air carriers.

George was wondering if my USAF Reserve job that neither pays anything, nor provides Tricare coverage (the military’s health care plan) has different vaccine requirements than the rest of the US military. It doesn’t.

I’ve grown tired of trying to argue with anti-vaxxers, and I knew he didn’t contact me to engage in a debate. I tried to help him brainstorm ways to make his career work, given his plan to make his stand against the COVID vaccine. Short of a company-wide mandate, I think he may have some (limited) options for staying there.

I thought this was a one-off situation. United recently announced that they’re going to require COVID vaccination for all US employees. Delta has all but required it by announcing they’ll charge unvaccinated employees on the company group health care plan a monthly surcharge, in addition to some other measures. Between the state that our world is in, and the power that corporate lawyers have in dictating liability-limiting policies, I figure it’s only a matter of time until the majority of air carriers implement similar policies.

I didn’t think there’d be many individuals as principled as George who were willing to actually walk away from a military retirement and give up a job at a dream airline over this. I figured most pilots would eventually give in. However, I keep seeing this discussion online. People are asking, “Where can a pilot work without having to get ‘the jab?’”

I won’t provide that list here. I’m also not necessarily trying to convince you to get vaccinated. However, I do want to present some context and perspective for you and your family to consider as you seek out employers with whom you may be able to avoid vaccination.

I think the question of, “How can I avoid getting the jab?” is incomplete. The rest of that question is: “…and if I do, what are the consequences for me and my family?”

Trump Cards

Before we go any further, you should note that you can probably play one or more trump cards no matter where you work.

Some individuals cannot receive immunizations for genuine medical reasons. In general, you should already know if you qualify for this exemption. However, in a world where celebrities can get enough legally-prescribed medications to kill themselves on an alarmingly widespread basis, I am confident you can find a doctor who will formally declare you vaccine exempt.

I’ve heard of airlines challenging other types of medical diagnoses in the past, requiring a pilot to submit to examination from a second doctor chosen by the company. Going down that road is a serious commitment for an airline, so it may be possible to slip through the cracks by playing this card.

I think a more effective card to play would be claiming religious objection. Delta’s recent policy announcement specifically identifies “genuine” religious objections as a valid exemption. If you’re interested in using this excuse, here’s a handy list of common faiths and their stances on vaccination from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

I’m guessing that most Networkers belong to religions that fall under the “no theological objection” section, but why should anyone let that stop them? Religious belief is a very individual thing, and America in particular is a place where you can essentially make up any kind of religion you want. Heck, you can get ordained as a Dudeist minister for free online. (Of course I did it! Does anyone need a wedding officiant? Because that’d be, like, totally cool man.)

If you really, truly want an unassailable vaccine exemption, religion is the way to go.

The US is a place where religion can be made to fit any ideology.

Scope

So, let’s say you’ve identified and managed to get hired by an aviation operator that won’t require you to get vaccinated, or you’ve just used medical or religious exemptions to keep your current job. Are all your problems solved? Before you start celebrating your moral victory, you need to take a moment to think about the scope of your carrier’s operations. Where does your company fly?

Our industry exists because aircraft enable travel far enough from home that you can’t always get back to your own bed at night. Given the capabilities of modern aircraft, this frequently includes international travel. Serving those destinations is a lucrative part of running an air carrier, even if you work for the smallest companies commonly thought of as domestic operators. Regional, turboprop-only carrier Silver Airways serves numerous Caribbean countries. Single fleet-type ULCCs like Spirit, Frontier, and Southwest fly to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and even some Central or South American countries. JetBlue just started flying to London.

I doubt a hardcore anti-vaxxer will be able to find many jobs with operators who never fly to places that require vaccination. No doubt the few jobs in this category will pay far less than Major, Ultra-Low Cost, or even most Regional airlines.

Even if you can stay at a major airline, the nature of our industry will severely limit your options and earning potential. Hold that thought for now.

Foreign Powers

You may be able to stretch/bend/break the rules on medical or religious exemptions as long as you reside in the Land of the Free, but don’t think for a moment that the government of Foreign Country X cares about your religion or your healthcare choices.

It doesn’t matter how open-minded a US corporation may or may not be. When that company’s employees land a jet in a foreign country, they are obligated to obey that country’s laws. (We expect the same of our foreign visitors.) We are increasingly seeing countries outside the US requiring COVID vaccination, and I expect that trend to spread.

This reality will be tough to accept if you haven’t spent much time outside the US. I have a friend who once took a train from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Minsk, Belarus. When the train stopped for customs on the Belarusian border, the guard inspecting his passport didn’t like the way it looked. The guard arrested my friend, took away his passport, and threw him into a cell.

I know his passport was valid. He used it to travel to Europe from the US, and I’d personally helped take it to the Belarusian embassy to get his visa. The embassy personnel didn’t have a problem with the passport.

None of that mattered. The guards’ plan was to keep my friend in that cell, without any food or water, indefinitely. No, he did not get a phone call. No, he did not get a lawyer. Why would he? There was never going to be any kind of trial. No, the guard did not call the US embassy to report the problem. The guard had no obligations to my friend, and my friend had no rights.

Don’t expect a foreign government to respect your beliefs.

Thankfully, he was traveling with someone else who alerted the US embassy to the situation. If not for that, he would have died alone in that unknown place.

You should not expect any accommodations, whatsoever, when it comes to COVID vaccinations in other countries.

Precedent

A pilot without the benefit of international experience might rankle at the thought of other countries refusing to respect the freedoms to which we feel entitled in the US. It doesn’t matter though…that’s a fight no US pilot will ever win.

Part of the reason this battle has already been lost for COVID is that the world has a precedent. Many countries have long required Yellow Fever vaccination. (Here’s the full list from the World Health Organization.)

Yellow Fever hotspots from the World Health Organization

It doesn’t matter what your personal medical situation may be or what you believe, you’re not getting into those countries without that vaccine. My friend with the passport (non-)issue got some pretty terrible treatment in Belaurs, an otherwise mostly modern European country. Imagine what would happen to a pilot who tried to illegally immigrate to somewhere like the Congo.

Given these rules, it should surprise nobody that airlines who serve these destinations require their pilots to obtain the Yellow Fever Vaccine. Yes, they’ll still hire you if you are honestly vaccine-exempt.

No airline would expose a pilot to an illegal immigration type situation. They just choose not to send an unvaccinated pilot on that flight. However, there’s a critical caveat here: If you can’t go somewhere because of your vaccination status, you don’t get paid for that trip.

Practicalities

Yes, you read that right. Most airline pilot contracts include a lot of rules that ensure what we call “pay protection.” Did weather, maintenance, scheduling, or any of a dozen other factors cause your flight to not go as planned? Don’t worry, you’re still going to get paid for the greater of 1) what you actually flew, or 2) what you were scheduled to fly.

However, there are some times when you aren’t pay protected. My contract includes an “unable to commute” clause. As long as I have a jumpseat reservation or nonrev listing on a flight, and that plus at least one backup flight are scheduled to get me to work in time, I’m completely safe. If both of those flights fall through for some reason, I just call scheduling. They find someone else to fly the trip and I don’t get in trouble. However, I am not pay protected because it was ultimately my fault. As far as the company is concerned, I should be living in New York and commuting is my choice.

The Yellow Fever vaccine is another situation where pay protection does not apply. If an unvaccinated pilot gets assigned a trip to an area requiring the Yellow Fever vaccine, that trip is dropped, without pay protection. This is codified in our contract and nobody bothers to challenge it because it simply makes sense. My airline has zero power to change or circumvent the laws of a dozen different African and Latin American countries. There’s no reason they should feel obligated to pay a pilot who is medically unable to fly there.

Thankfully for those who can’t get the Yellow Fever vaccine, flying to those parts of the world only accounts for a tiny portion of our overall operation. It’s very easy to bid onto a fleet that will never fly those places. Even if you really, really wanted to fly the specific type of aircraft that goes to these destinations, those aircraft fly to enough other destinations that these pilots could probably work around it as long as they aren’t extremely junior.

Every indication shows that COVID vaccination requirements will not be so rare.

I’m in training for the B737 at my airline. As I look through my bid package, I’m seeing that a significant number of our trips include international flights. My schedule for this month includes a 4-day trip worth 21.4 hours that goes to Cabo. At my pay rate of $272/hr, having to drop that trip without pay would cost my family more than $6,800.

A pilot who had to drop a trip like that every other month would take a pay cut of $40,800. Having to drop a trip like that every month could cost more than $81,000.

Maybe a pilot could afford to let those trips drop, hoping to pick up others. That’s well and good as long as there are other domestic-only trips available. However, this could severely limit your scheduling flexibility, and your ability to pick up trips that you would otherwise prefer to fly. It will certainly limit your ability to fly high-paying widebody aircraft at a major airline.

You might also say, “Well, I’ll just bid reserve.” In most cases, a pilot on reserve receives a guaranteed number of hours of pay whether she flies or not. Although I’m not sure, I think my contract would pay protect an unvaccinated pilot’s reserve guarantee if she were assigned a Yellow Fever trip. However, if airlines start having to deal with widespread reserve pilot scheduling issues because of COVID vaccination requirements, I can see that kind of pay protection disappearing quickly.

Even if you find a company that allows you to forego the COVID vaccine, it could cost your family a lot. I’m the first to say that money isn’t everything, but you owe it to your spouse and children to discuss the potential financial, scheduling, and career implications of a choice to go unvaccinated.

About That Line in the Sand

Before Delta announced their most recent vaccination policy that some perceive as punitive, they tried a different approach. Since the getting vaccine grounds a pilot for 48 hours, Delta agreed to give pilots an extra two days of pay for getting “the jab.” I made $3K for something I was going to do anyway.

I was only mildly surprised to notice how quickly some of the loudest anti-vaxxer voices within our pilot group shifted their focus from, “This aggression will not stand, Man,” to “I got my shot 6.9 seconds ago. Why hasn’t my money showed up in my bank account yet?”

It could be that those individuals are unscrupulous money grubbers. However, it could also be that there’s a world of difference between arguing something out of principle on social media (hopefully without getting yourself into trouble), and backing up your words by voluntarily taking pay cuts that could quickly reach tens of thousands of dollars.

I’m not saying that amount of money should persuade you to abandon your principles. However, you do owe it to your family to consider the full ramifications of drawing your line here. It appears that a $10M+ career at a top-tier major airline may not even be enough to tip the scales for my friend George. If that’s the case, then I at least have to respect his adherence to his principles. I’d like to think there are some issues over which I’d also walk away from this career.

Maybe though, as you take a moment to consider the actual risks and benefits of a vaccine that now has full FDA approval, you’ll reconsider whether this issue is worth giving up tens of thousands of dollars a year…or even walking away from a multi-million dollar career.

I wonder if part of this whole debate has gone beyond epidemiology and morphed into a fight over public policy. I readily concede some of the overall policy concerns that have many people alarmed. However, I wonder if refusing the COVID vaccine (and accepting the resulting consequences) is an effective way to fight that fight. I feel like a principled aviator could maintain moral justification for arguing in favor of certain principles while also getting vaccinated…not necessarily because anyone is making you, but because you chose to do so for yourself and your family.

If not, that’s okay too. You’ll do what you have to. However, just make sure you’re asking yourself the whole question. It’s not just: “How do I avoid the jab?” It’s “How do I avoid the jab, and what will that cost my family?”

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