Southwest CEO says he never wanted a Covid vaccine mandate but Biden forced his hand

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  • “I’ve never been on the side of corporations enforcing that kind of mandate. I’m not in favor of it,” Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday.
  • However, Kelly said the Dallas-based carrier is still adhering to federal regulations imposed by the Biden administration.
  • “The aim here, obviously, is to improve health and safety, not for people to lose their jobs,” Kelly said.

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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday that he believes businesses should not impose a COVID vaccine mandate on their employees.

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However, he said his Dallas-based carrier was doing so to comply with federal regulations imposed by the Biden administration.

“I’ve never been on the side of corporations enforcing that kind of mandate. I’m not in favor of it. Never have been,” Kelly said in an interview on “Squawk on the Street.” “But President Biden’s executive order states that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, must have a [vaccine] The mandate… has come into force by December 8, so we are working on it.”

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Southwest said last week its 56,000-person employees were required to be vaccinated against COVID by December 8 in order to continue working at the airline. Southwest’s announcement comes days after other carriers — including American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airways — informed employees about the need to comply with federal vaccine rules.

In August, prior to the Biden administration’s action, United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines established COVID vaccine requirements for their employees.

Following in the footsteps of other carriers such as Delta Air Lines, American and United, Southwest began offering incentives such as extra pay to scale up a coronavirus vaccine in mid-September.

Delta later said that starting November 1, unvaccinated workers would have to pay an additional $200 per month for company health insurance.

Kelly referred to Southwest’s efforts to encourage employees to get a COVID shot, adding that individuals are also able to apply for religious and medical exemptions.

“My goal, obviously, is that no one loses their jobs. The aim here, obviously, is to improve health and safety, not to make people lose their jobs,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s remarks on Tuesday come as Southwest has been facing heat in recent days due to widespread flight cancellations and Monday’s sharp drop in the company’s stock price.

There were signs that Southwest’s operations were improving Tuesday, as 87 flights, or just 2% of its schedule, were cancelled. Its shares were up about 1%.

About 2,200 flights were canceled on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, of which more than half happened on Sunday alone.

According to Southwest, the cancellation may be due to bad weather and air traffic control issues in Florida. This put the aircraft and crew in the wrong position, adding to more widespread problems.

The company pushed back speculation that the flight disruption was related to calling workers sick, as a way of protesting its decision to institute a COVID vaccine requirement.

Kelly also denied this in Tuesday’s CNBC interview: “We have some very strong views on that topic, but that wasn’t the case with Southwest over the weekend.”

In August, the airline reduced its schedule in hopes of fixing operational conflicts over the summer, which regularly led to dozens of cancellations.

CNBC Leslie Joseph

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