But United said in a court filing last week that it’s not practical to allow them to keep working, because some vaccinated pilots won’t fly with unvaccinated staff. In a separate filing, United said flight attendants have stated they would hold similar objections to flying with unvaccinated coworkers.
The company asked for permission to put unvaccinated workers on leave.
“United cannot return the unvaccinated pilots to the cockpit because — aside from the various practical problems with testing and masking — we would face serious and widespread objections from the vaccinated pilots,” said Kirk Limacher, vice president of HR at United, in a court filing. “In fact the objections among our vaccinated pilots are so strongly held that many of them would simply refuse to fly with the accommodated pilots. The distractions and dissension this would cause in the workforce represent an unacceptable safety risk.”
Attorneys for the employees who brought the suit said United’s claim is not backed by any evidence.
“The claim is easily rebutted by showing the instances of vaccinated and unvaccinated pilots flying together throughout the past nine months,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys said in a filing. Even in the last week, the filing states, United had allowed an unvaccinated pilot to fly and there was no issue.
The plaintiffs also dispute that the unvaccinated staff who test negative for Covid-19 would pose a risk to their co-workers.
Vaccinated pilots are “safer flying with an accommodated, unvaccinated pilot who just tested negative for Covid-19 than with an untested, vaccinated pilot,” the plaintiffs’ filing states, because the vaccinated pilot could have a breakthrough case, even without showing symptoms. The plaintiffs’ filing accuses United of attempting to “ostracize those seeking accommodations.”
But United CEO Scott Kirby has argued that it isn’t practical to allow testing instead of vaccines because positive or skipped tests could lead to sudden and unexpected staff shortages and flight cancelations.
“Imagine if you have thousands of employees on one day calling in and saying, ‘For some reason, my test didn’t pass.’ I mean it is going to be a huge challenge for airlines that are not implementing vaccine requirements,” he said in a call with investors, suggesting that United’s passengers can have more faith that their flights won’t be canceled due to its vaccine mandate.
In the end, Judge Pittman decided to extend his temporary restraining order, meaning United employees who requested accommodations will stay on the payroll while he continues to hear arguments. Pittman has said in earlier rulings that his decision is not based on the merits of the case, but on his desire to maintain the status quo as the case proceeds.