A federal judge says Southwest Airlines can require its 9,000 pilots to be vaccinated against COVID-19, rejecting an appeal for a temporary restraining order to halt compliance.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association wanted U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn to stop the airline’s plan to require vaccines for all its employees, including pilots who argued that the mandate needed to be negotiated as part of its collective bargaining agreement. The judge dismissed the restraining order request Tuesday.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is asking all of its 60,000 employees to be vaccinated in order to comply with a White House mandate for federal contractors. The company had previously said that only employees who were vaccinated or granted an exemption would be allowed to continue working, but management has backed off threats to furlough or fire employees who don’t comply.
Pilots have been at the forefront of the fight against required vaccinations, pushing for options such as frequent testing or face masks.
But Lynn, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, said vaccinations support Southwest’s “goal of furthering ‘the safety of air transportation’ and providing ‘safe and reasonable working conditions’ for pilots, by preventing the spread of disease by adopting safe working practices, quarantining when recommended by the CDC, and encouraging more employees to get vaccinated.”
Lynn said in her ruling that the requirement will “likewise improve the safety of air transportation, the efficiency of Southwest’s operations, and further the [collective bargaining agreement] goal of safe and reasonable working conditions for pilots.”
Employees at Southwest Airlines have until Nov. 24 to turn in proof of vaccination or a request for a medical or religious exemption ahead of a Dec. 8 federal deadline. It’s unclear what will happen to Southwest employees who don’t turn in proof of vaccination or a request for an exemption.
SWAPA and the union for American Airlines pilots have warned that the vaccine mandates could lead to an exodus of pilots just ahead of the busy holiday flying season. Southwest and other airlines already faced crew shortages this summer when bad weather disrupted flying during busy weekends.
The case is one of two major cases being fought in the U.S. District Court in Fort Worth. In another case brought by six employees, a judge is trying to decide whether Chicago-based United Airlines unfairly rejected requests for vaccine exemptions on religious and medical grounds.
The judge in that case, Mark Pittman, has granted a temporary restraining order against United that prevents the airline from placing affected employees on unpaid leave.