Delta Air Lines made the news this weekend by announcing that it will require all new employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. I’ve seen untold drama over this announcement among pilots. The thing is: this is 100% a non-issue, and getting yourself worked-up over it only hurts you. Let’s consider why.
Disclaimers: before we get into it, let’s get a couple things out of the way. Yes, I’m in favor of the COVID vaccine. I realize that you may not be in favor of it, and respect your right to have your own opinion. This editorial is not virtue signaling or an attempt to shame you into or out of anything. Instead, I hope to help you consider the ramifications of vocalizing about this topic on social media and elsewhere. Also, everything I write here is my personal opinion and not that of The Pilot Network, Delta, or any other airline or corporation. Fair enough? On we go.
Airlines and Vaccines
First, COVID-19 is not the only disease that major US airlines require their pilots to be vaccinated against. At Delta and other companies, all new pilots are also required to show up with proof of a Yellow Fever vaccine. Shockingly, there has never been significant drama over that requirement.
Even this requirement isn’t set in stone. Some pilots who are medically (or perhaps ideologically) unable to receive that vaccine still work for Delta. This comes with a catch. If such a pilot gets assigned a trip to a destination that requires the Yellow Fever vaccine, the Delta pilot contract allows the company to remove that trip from the pilot’s schedule. The pilot isn’t in any trouble whatsoever; however, that pilot also forfeits the pay he or she would have received for flying the (entire) trip.
Even if they wanted to, the pilots couldn’t hold this requirement against the company because it isn’t the company’s requirement. (And they don’t. This clause has been in the contract for a long time, without controversy, because most pilots support it.) This vaccine is mandatory for some destinations because the national governments of those countries require it. As a private corporation, there’s no reason for that company, let alone an individual employee, to expect an exception to national law. Trying to enter that country without the Yellow Fever vaccine would be an attempt to enter the country while simultaneously breaking their laws.
(I find it fascinatingly hypocritical how many pilots rage both in person and on social media about people who attempt to illegally immigrate to the United States, yet assert that they should be able to visit another country without obeying its vaccination laws. Laws are laws. This is apples and apples.)
At US airlines, a pilot is free to choose to forego Yellow Fever vaccination, but the company is under no obligation to pay him or her for failing to comply with that country’s laws, thereby precluding his or her eligibility to cross their borders.
I suspect that, in the long run, we’ll see a similar situation with the COVID-19 vaccine. If an individual pilot really, really doesn’t want it, he or she can probably doctor shop to find a physician with similar politics who will write an excuse note. As we already noted, some pilots have valid medical reasons that prevent them from getting lots of vaccines. Those pilots will probably still be able to get hired by a major airline.
However, that pilot won’t be able to fly trips to countries that require a COVID-19 vaccination to cross the border. Just like Yellow Fever, an unvaccinated pilot who gets assigned a trip to one of those places will likely see that trip dropped, without pay. The catch here is that the Yellow Fever vaccine is only required in a few African nations. I suspect the COVID-19 vaccine will be required in more places that offer more desirable layovers.
Again, these requirements won’t be the bright idea of some socially-minded CEO who wants to score ideology points with your customers. These requirements will be driven by national law in each of these countries. No matter what airline you fly for, your company won’t feel obligated to pay you for a flight to Country X when the reason that you can’t go there is you didn’t feel like complying with that country’s laws.
Don’t feel like complying with a given country’s laws? Then don’t go there! You’re not a citizen. You’re not entitled to expect anything from them, and you don’t get to dictate their laws. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this exact argument from pilots about illegal immigration to the US on the same trip where they complain about the possibility about having to get vaccinated to fly to England, China, or elsewhere.
Not Just Delta
This brings up another important point to ponder: Delta may be the first, but they will not be the only company to require COVID-19 vaccination. In the US, the major airlines with widebody aircraft aren’t the only ones who do international flying. Southwest and the ULCCs already fly to spots all over North and South America. Several plan to start flights to Europe using A320neo-family aircraft. Even most regional airlines in the US serve some international destinations in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
It will be downright challenging at some companies to get a schedule free of any international flying. Trying to make it work would cost you tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars over the course of your career. I applaud any person with beliefs strong enough to give up that kind of money on principle. However, you should probably spend a few minutes thinking through the full spectrum of that choice’s implications. You should also involve your spouse or significant other in that consideration if you have one.
But This One is Different
I’ve recently encountered more than one pilot who received vaccines against Yellow Fever, Smallpox, Anthrax, and many others…yet remains opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine on the grounds that it’s new and is currently administered after an expedited approval process.
Although I’m less skeptical here than most, I can understand this concern. I’ve worked for the Federal government for more than 20 years, and I can tell you that “infallible” will never be a word I use to describe it. (I all too frequently feel that “competent” is even generous.)
Any scientist worth his or her title will also admit that science never settles anything. Even our firm “conclusions” are only based on the information available and observations made so far. A true scientist always uses new ideas and evidence to challenge past conclusions, fully prepared to accept that they were wrong in the past. It is entirely possible that future scientists will discover some undesirable, overlooked side-effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, all “regular” vaccines from Smallpox to Yellow Fever started as experiments (or accidents.) At some point, their use became so widespread that even most COVID vaccine nay-sayers acknowledged that they’re probably safe enough for their benefits to outweigh any potential risks. Whatever the status of the COVID vaccine today, that status is likely to change in the near future. There will be a point where it receives full FDA approval, just like the Yellow Fever vaccine that airlines already require.
Highlighting the COVID vaccine as “experimental” only justifies your argument until that happens. So, the next question is: how long will it take you to get hired at your dream airline? Unless you already had a CJO before the pandemic started, I’d wager there’s a good chance the FDA will upgrade the COVID vaccine’s status before you get that next job.
COVID Has Side Effects!?
We’re about to wrap this up, but in all the hand-wringing and concern about the safety of vaccines, I think it’s important to spend a few moments considering the consequences of being infected with COVID-19.
According to the CDC, out of more than 1.8 Million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, there have been 4,393 “adverse events” for an overall rate of 0.2%. The list of adverse events includes some serious things like anaphylaxis. However, it also includes everything from injection site pain (Duh. Needle in your arm. What were you expecting?) to fatigue (I experienced it, so I went to bed early) to fever (common with many vaccines including Yellow Fever.) I know a lot of pilots who would jump to ascribe complaints about those types of “adverse events” to over-coddled millennials who need to toughen up and go get a job.
Some pilots also assert that the COVID-19 vaccine has been causing a lot of deaths, based on speculative statements from talk show personalities like Tucker Carlson. (Strangely, the people who jump on the bandwagon with Mr. Carlson’s statistics are frequently the same ones who believe COVID-19 death statistics are overstated because many patients died from other causes with COVID-19 only being a side effect. Couldn’t it be the same with the vaccine?)
Having considered the possible side-effects of vaccination, let’s consider what it’s like to get COVID. From what I’ve heard, having COVID sucks. Even long-time COVID-denier Ted Nugent reported that the disease made him so miserable that he wasn’t sure he’d survive it.
Perhaps you feel strong enough to survive a bout with COVID and consider a few weeks of suffering as a small price to pay in support of your principles. Cool! You should also read what agencies like the Mayo Clinic have to say about long-term COVID-19 side-effects though. Their laundry list includes a lot of frightening possibilities including permanent organ damage. If you’re reading this you’re probably in an age group with a better-than-99% chance of surviving COVID. However, your chances of getting through the next months and years without significant ongoing health issues are far worse.
Maybe you like the odds of not dying, but how do you feel about the odds of having long-term health issues? Could those ongoing issues, including long-term organ damage, put your flying career in jeopardy?
The Scope of Social Media
So, like I said, I’m not out to convince you to get vaccinated today. However, I hope you realize that vaccination isn’t as risky as some media outlets would have you believe. I also hope you realize that contracting COVID-19 could post some long-term threats to your ability to obtain an FAA medical certificate.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I’m worried that many pilots are responding to the news about Delta on social media in ways that will threaten their careers. If you haven’t already, please read this article I wrote for BogiDope about how Social Media is both a Blessing and a Curse.
Vaccines aside, maybe you just hate bus driver hats and double-breasted jackets so much that you would never want to work for Delta…and you’re not concerned that they may notice you bad-mouthing them on social media. Remember though: Delta will not be the only airline to require a COVID vaccine. These policies won’t be driven by a given corporation’s politics or opinion. They’ll be driven by the laws of the countries where these airlines want to land their aircraft. It would be foolish to think that United, FedEx, Southwest, or [Airline X] won’t notice you ranting about Delta’s vaccine policies online. What position will you be in when one of the companies you actually want to work for implements a similar policy?
Remember: social media is forever.
Even if the person on your hiring board at UPS, American, or [Airline X] happens to agree with you on the vaccine matter itself, do you think he or she will want to hire you after seeing that you’re happy to publicly trash any given company with which you disagree? If Airline X hires you, what’s to prevent you from ranting about them online after they announce some other policy you don’t agree with? Do you think they want someone who will do that while working for them?
For at least the next few years airline hiring is going to be a rat race. The airlines were behind the hiring curve way back in 2019. Then, they spent most of 2020 not hiring anyone despite record numbers of on-time retirements and thousands of economically-incentivized early retirements. In the meantime pilots at the regionals, ULCCs, and the military all accrued more hours, experience, and other qualifications. Every major airline is sitting on the same pile of several thousand applications. If they happen to notice that you’re one of those especially vocal social media types who enjoys going off about policies you don’t like, it won’t hurt them at all to just move your app to the TBNT pile. They have thousands of other fully-qualified applicants who prefer to keep their mouths shut and not publicly badmouth the policies of their potential future employers on social media.
Would you rather risk the near- and long-term effects of contracting COVID over the 0.2% of injection site pain and joint stiffness that comes from the vaccine? Go for it! However, if you hope to get hired at an airline that may have to implement a policy like Delta’s in the future, vehemently expressing your opinion online can only harm you.
Go find a safe space to seethe in. Find a support group of individuals who share your vaccine orientation and share your feelings with them. However, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you keep your opinions away from any social media and other outlets where every airline can see them. You aren’t just trashing Delta. You’re jeopardizing your chances everywhere.
I don’t want that for you. I want to see you flying at your dream airline for the next few decades. Hopefully, we’ll end up at the same layover and (privately) complain about finding places to stash all our money over some frosty beverages!
Image Credit: thanks to DVIDS for the vaccination picture!