How United Airlines Decided to Lead on Vaccine Mandates
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Scott Kirby is the chief executive officer of United Airlines Holdings Inc., a role he assumed in early 2020, just a couple of months after Covid-19 began sweeping across the country. Kirby told the company’s 67,000 U.S. employees last summer that they would lose their jobs if they weren’t vaccinated by Sept. 27. About 99.7% of United’s workforce is now vaccinated. In a recent interview, Kirby and I discussed how and why he decided to make United the first U.S. airline — and one of the first large corporations — to impose a vaccine mandate. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Tim O’Brien: Just chronologically, walk me through your thought process about deciding to issue a mandate.
Scott Kirby: I first brought it up with our executive team in either October or November of last year, before the first Phase III trials had even concluded because evidence was so strong on the Phase II. Safety is No. 1 at the airline. I had been writing letters to the families of every employee that lost their lives to Covid, and I was writing a lot of letters back then. Secondly, we had been in this situation from the very beginning of crews flying to China, for example, when it very first started and a total unknown. Feeling an obligation — a humanitarian obligation — to send the crews there because they were bringing back ventilators and PPE, everything to deal with the crisis. So feeling an obligation to keep flying, but also an obligation to those people who we were sending potentially into harm’s way. So we started talking about it in November. And then in January, it’s called “Earnings Live,” we do a big event after every earnings with our employees, and someone asked me about it. I said I thought it was the right thing to do. We weren’t going to do it right away, not enough supply, didn’t think we could be the only ones to do it, the timing wasn’t there yet. But it was the right thing to do. And people shouldn’t be surprised if we might be one of the first companies to do it.
TOB: Did you speak to other companies about how they were handling mandates, or was this just discussed internally at United?
SK: It started inside United. I wound up having a lot of conversations, even got organized conversations, with business groups, with people talking about it. I had a flood of emails in my inbox from others that they might want to do the same thing if we did it. And so a lot of conversations with people about it. This all helped because I and our team were talking and thinking about this and thinking about the challenges and how you manage them really all the way back to November. Then cases came down, deaths came down, and probably by March I stopped writing letters to employees’ families. It was starting to feel like maybe this is going to be over. The next moment where I almost pulled the trigger on it was when the delta variant kicked up in India because we were sending employees to India. Again, I felt the obligation. Some days we were carrying north of a hundred tons of medical equipment into India. And we were the only U.S. airline that flies to India to deal with the crisis. Our people were worried about it. What we did instead then was we negotiated a deal with our pilots’ and our flight attendants’ unions that we gave a big incentive to employees to get vaccinated. But we also got the right as a company to designate certain countries as only vaccinated employees could fly to those countries. That made me sleep better at night about countries like India, but that was the next time we thought about it. Then, of course, the delta variant started showing up in the United States. I also watched our case counts, and people in ICU, those started going up again. Then I was on vacation [in August] in Croatia, and the second death happened. I walked around by myself for about half an hour and I talked to my wife about it. Then, once the time zones were correct, I called Brett [Hart] and Kate [Gebo], our president and EVP of HR, and we talked through it. At the end of it, we said, “We’re going to do it. And I’m coming back to the U.S. on Wednesday. Let’s announce this on either Thursday or Friday.”
TOB: When you walked around on your own for that half hour, what were you trying to sort through?
SK: It felt like the right thing to do. But nobody else was doing it. I was worried about all the things everyone else worries about. What if we lose staff? We’ve got tens of thousands of people that are unvaccinated. What's the PR issue? Should United do this if no one else is doing it? What I couldn’t get past was, I was doing the math in my head, I’m kind of a math geek. I knew what the case rates were. I’d been watching all the data. And my estimate was between 20 and 40 United Airlines employees would lose their lives to Covid by a year from then, by the next August, if we didn’t do it. They would otherwise be alive. Once I kind of had done that math in my head, had gotten to 20 to 40 people, that's when I made the call. Once I got there, it was easy.
TOB: You first looked at using incentives to nudge employees to get vaccinated before taking the stricter route of a mandate. Talk to me a little bit about that balance of incentives and mandates.
SK: You had to give it a chance to work. It amazes me to read people that say, “Well, we prefer to use incentives instead of mandates.” Well, all of us prefer to use incentives instead of mandates! It’s just that they don’t work. They’re not good enough. And we had some pretty rich incentives for our people.
TOB: Why do you think incentives don’t work?
SK: It’s human nature. When you made it a mandate, things happened. There were these wonderful stories of people getting convinced by other co-workers. … United is a family. I heard stories of mechanics talking to other mechanics and somebody saying, “I’m not gonna do it.” And they’re like, “You’re going to give up this job. You have this great job with these great benefits. You’re going to give that up for this? Come on!” And they’d drive them to the clinic to get it. In an incentive world, that doesn’t happen. … Those family relationships help you get over the line.
TOB: Do you think that dynamic is unique to United’s culture? Or do you think it exists at many companies and it’s not being exploited?
SK: I think it would exist in most places. I think our family culture is a little stronger probably than most. The key thing to getting [the vaccination rate] over 99% is you can’t be bluffing. People can smell a bluff. And if the executives are saying this is mandatory, and they’re sitting in meetings with each other, saying, “Oh my God, we don’t have enough people. Let’s push the date out. Let’s figure out a way to waffle.” People can smell that. They can smell a bluff, and they’re not going to get vaccinated. For us, it wasn’t a bluff. Because to me it was a safety issue, and that made it easy. No one on our executive team thought it was a bluff. And they were communicating that to the front line. And by the time we got to the end, everyone knew it was real. And if they know it’s real, they’re going to vaccinated.
TOB: So being tentative is a mistake?
SK: It’s awful. Everything in life — indecisive is bad for anything you do. But on this one, it’s divisive. It prolongs this debate. It leads to a worst result. If you ever get to the point where the mandate becomes real — because you either decide to do it or the government forces you to do it — people don’t believe it’s real anymore. Because once they called your bluff five times, they’re going to try to call your bluff again because they think you’re bluffing. I’m so glad we did it the way we did it, which was we were decisive. We said, “Here’s the date. Here it is. We just did it.”
TOB: Did you break your stakeholders up into different groups who needed to be talked to in different ways, or was there a common message?
SK: It was mostly the same message. Different messengers, sometimes, delivering the message. Our senior VP of tech ops, Tom Doxey, did a phenomenal job. He went into break rooms all over the country. He talked to people. He was empathetic. He listened. This wasn’t an argument. There was no point in arguing with people. … What we wound up saying was, “Look, I respect that there’s a different viewpoint, that you have a different view. But I have a job to do what we think is the right thing for safety. This is purely a safety decision for us. And we’ve made the decision. And I hope you’ll get vaccinated. But you now have a decision to make.” But we didn’t argue about different viewpoints on the science. … A lot of it was because everyone believed that it was real. We weren’t bluffing. That whole family relationship, those trusting relationships, people wound up talking to people they trusted. It wasn’t top down from me. It was all the people that they trusted.
TOB: Do you worry about “tentative” having business consequences in terms of the economy recovering and getting businesses back functioning smoothly?
SK: It’s less about that. I think we’re on the road to recovery. I hope the Biden administration’s rules wind up getting upheld and going through. We do need to get more vaccinated. But the combination of higher vaccination rates and kids getting vaccinated, and the treatments, means we’re on the road, I believe, to recovery. I would say aviation has had a history of having a safety standard that is two sigma better than maybe the next best industry. That safety standard is always applied to airplanes flying, and it’s why it’s so remarkably safe and it’s so unusual to have incidents. I don’t think the whole industry has lived up to that two-sigma-better-than-everyone-else safety record, sadly, during this. We did at United. But I’m disappointed. The industry should have led. I didn’t want this to be a United Airlines thing. This should have been the aviation industry leads because that’s who we are.
TOB: Were you surprised that it ended up being a United-led phenomenon?
SK: I wasn’t surprised that we led. But I was surprised that others didn’t do it after we led, particularly because we were so successful. Like usually when you see such a road to success, they’ll just copy it. And I wanted them to. I wish they had. But they didn’t.
TOB: Do you attribute that to politics?
SK: I don’t know. Look, it’s a hard decision depending on which lens you view it with. If you think that something is the right thing to do, then you just decide to do it and then you figure it out. Most of the time in corporate America, you think about all the risks. Then you figure out how am I going to manage all of these risks before I make the decision. For most decisions, that’s the right way to do it — think about buying airplanes or a new route or whatever. But those aren’t the-right-thing-to-do kinds of decisions. Those are day-to-day business decisions. But if you use that lens of, “I’m not going to make a decision until I’ve solved every risk,” you can never make the decision. Because this was an unknown. You didn’t know what the risks are going to be. So I think a lot of people in aviation, others, are struggling with, “This risk seems so unknowable; I’m afraid to make the decision. I know the right thing to do is mandate vaccine, but I’m afraid to make that decision because the risks seem so unknowable.” We made it the opposite way. We said, “This is the right thing to do, therefore we’re doing it. And if the risks happen, we’ll deal with it. We’ll figure out how to deal with it. But we are going to do it because it’s about doing the right thing to save people’s lives.”
TOB: And the risk that on most people’s radar was how many employees would walk out the door if they felt they were being handcuffed into getting a vaccination?
SK: Yeah, that’s the No. 1 risk. You said politics. I don't think it’s political. It’s how much staffing will I lose.
TOB: If we move past this pandemic, do you think corporate America, or specifically the airline industry, will prepare in a different way for the possibility of future public health problems?
SK: Rather than say it about health issues, I will say that the lesson for me personally from our vaccine experience is that once you decide to do the right thing, you should just do it and don’t worry about consequences.
TOB: That’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from how you’ve managed through this event? Because it sounds to me like that was baked into your DNA long before this event happened.
SK: Obviously it had to be, or I wouldn’t have done the vaccine decision. But it may be that the biggest lesson that I learned is not only that you should do the right thing, but that doing the right thing leads to the best result. This has been transformational for United. I didn’t intend it to be. I didn’t know it was going to be transformational for United when we did it. But it has been culturally transformational for United to have done this. I think what I’ve learned is there’s so much appreciation from employees, customers, the public, others, for just doing the right thing.
TOB: What does the road ahead look like for you?
SK: I think Covid is endemic. But we’re going to have a relatively high vaccination rate around the world. We’re going to have pretty good treatment. Covid is going to become like the common cold. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. I don’t know if we’re going to get there this winter, next winter, exactly when we’re going to get there. But we’re going to get there. I think for United, we’re going to come out of this as the leading global airline. But an airline, also a company, that stands for something. ... Our goal is to build the best airline in the history of aviation. I now think we have the roadmap to do that, and we’re going to do that. I think we can think bigger and make a difference in the world. What we did on vaccines is an inspiration to me to what we can do on sustainability. Real differences on diversity, real action on diversity efforts and things that transcend just being an airline.
TOB: Do any of the lawsuits United employees have filed over mandates worry you?
SK: I’m not much of a worrier.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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