August 6, 2021

(Reuters) -United Airlines Inc on Friday became the first U.S. airline to require all its domestic employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The airline said its 67,000 U.S. employees would need to show proof of vaccination, five weeks after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves any of the vaccines from Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc or Johnson & Johnson – expected sometime in the fall – or by Oct. 25, whichever is earlier.

United said 90% of its pilots and 80% of flight attendants are vaccinated.

A resurgence of COVID-19 in the United States due to the more infectious Delta variant has prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reinstate indoor mask guidance for most vaccinated Americans. Some companies are requiring vaccinations at workplaces or delaying return-to-office timetables.

“The facts are crystal clear: Everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated,” United Chief Executive Officer Scott Kirby and President Brett Hart said in a letter to employees.

U.S. airlines are rebounding from a brutal 2020 when a slowdown in travel due to the pandemic forced them to cut flights, furlough employees and borrow government money to cover wages.

Kirby and Hart said they expected some employees would disagree with the decision but added that the instruction was issued to make the workplace safer.

Employees who get vaccinated before Sept. 20 and those who have already received their shots will get an additional day of pay.

The mandate coincides with growing concern over the impact of the Delta variant. On Thursday, Frontier Airlines lowered its third-quarter forecast and warned the Delta variant was hurting demand.

United’s pilots union, which represents more than 12,000 pilots, said the vaccines requirement requires further negotiation with United, adding that a few pilots do not agree with the mandate.

Some foreign destinations already require vaccines for U.S. airline employees.

The Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing United flight attendants, backed the move.

“There is now too much at risk to not ensure the safety and well-being of United Flight Attendants,” the union said in a statement. “COVID-19 is a threat. There are proven strategies to mitigate that threat. Vaccination is necessary to end the pandemic and the health and economic harm it has caused.”

Chicago-based United had reached a deal with its pilots’ union in May that does not make vaccination mandatory, but provides extra pay to those who receive it.

Some other major industries like U.S. automakers have reinstated mask requirements but declined to mandate vaccines for employees.

(Reporting by Abhijith Ganapavaram in Bengaluru, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington; editing by Shailesh Kuber, David Holmes and Jonathan Oatis)