Thanksgiving travel chaos looms as TSA faces vaccine mandate deadline that could force it to fire anyone unvaccinated - currently 40% of its workers - days before holiday
Traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday may become even more chaotic this year, as about 40 percent of TSA workers face potential termination for refusing to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Approximately 24,000 employees, including some airport screeners, have until November 22 - the Monday before Thanksgiving - to get the shot or risk being fired under President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for all federal workers.
The president announced the mandate for all federal workers last month, and said on Thursday that vaccine mandates shouldn't divide Americans as he warned that more directives were coming for private businesses.
'Let's be clear, vaccination requirements should not be another issue that divides us,' Biden said. 'That's why I continue to battle the misinformation out there.'
Meanwhile, only about 60 percent of the TSA has been vaccinated, Transportation Safety Administrator David Pekoske told CNN on Wednesday
'That number needs to go up quite a bit higher over the next few weeks.'
But meeting the deadline is already tight. The last possible date for a TSA agent to get a Pfizer vaccine is October 18, and the last day to get the first dose of the Moderna vaccine already passed on October 11. Pfizer requires a three-week waiting period between doses, and Moderna requires a four-week waiting time.
The last possible date to get a single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine is November 8 - two weeks before the deadline.
Anyone without at least one shot could face disciplinary action as early as November 9, the Office of Personnel Management announced October 1, noting that failure to comply with the federal mandate is an act of misconduct.
The office recommended agencies begin to pursue 'progressive discipline' by November 9 for any employee who has not begun the vaccination process, according to Federal News Network.
'Agencies are encouraged to consider whether lesser disciplinary penalties are adequate, as an initial matter, to encourage an employee to be vaccinated, such as a short suspension of 14 days or less,' said an office official.
If the unvaccinated federal worker demonstrates at any point during the suspension that they are taking steps to comply with the mandate, though, the OPM says agencies should effectively pause disciplinary action and give them a deadline for receiving a final dose and providing proof of vaccination.
Once they have provided that proof, agencies should stop the disciplinary process.
But if the temporary suspension does not compel the employee to get vaccinated, the OPM recommends agencies consider greater disciplinary measures - including termination.
The office pointed to Mazares v Department of Navy, in which the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld the Navy's decision to fire two civilian employees who refused to get the anthrax vaccine before a deployment on a naval ship to Korea.
The court ruled at the time that the employees' termination was not excessive as they were fired because they failed to obey a direct order from a supervisor.
In the interview with CNN, Pekoske said he is 'very hopeful' that the agency's employees can meet the deadline, and there will not be worker shortages.
Still, he said: 'We are building contingency plans for if we do have some staffing shortages as a result of this, but I hope to avoid that.'
He said he has been holding employee town halls to encourage TSA workers to get the vaccine so they will not be fired.
In total, the agency reports, more than 10,000 employees have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic, with 30 deaths associated with COVID.
There are now 335 employees currently on leave with the virus.
Nationwide, the CDC says the rate of transmission remains high, even as there were only 84,086 new cases reported nationwide on October 12, with 1,252 deaths.
About 65.6 percent of all Americans have had at least one dose of the COVID vaccine as of Wednesday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, and 56.6 percent are fully vaccinated.
A proposed rule that would mandate vaccines for companies with more than 100 people is also moving forward, with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration submitting the rule to the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday.
The rule will be implemented once OMB's review is complete and it's published in the Federal Register.
'The Labor Department will soon issue an emergency rule for companies with 100 or more employees to implement vaccination requirements among their workforce,' Biden said Thursday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki wouldn't give a timeline when asked about the rule Wednesday.
'We don't, as a ... longstanding practice, comment on the timeline of how long that takes because we want to allow that process to happen,' she answered. 'But, you know, it should be an indication that it's there and now it is being reviewed.'
'And once it is finalized and through the [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] process and review, it will be posted publicly in the Federal Register and you will all have access to every detail of it,' Psaki added.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday he believes businesses should not impose COVID vaccine mandates on their employers.
'I've never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of mandate,' he said. 'I'm not in favor of that, never have been.
'But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines have to have a mandate in place by December 8, so we're working through that.'
He said the week before, that 56,000 employees still had to be vaccinated in accordance with the mandate.
The announcement came just a few days after Southwest Airlines had to cancel almost 2,000 flights over the weekend.
Mike Van de Ven, the president of the airline, told employees in a video on Sunday that staffing shortages were to blame.
The airline, meanwhile, initially told the public that air traffic control issues in Florida caused the problem, but the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) then issued a statement saying there were problems for a few hours on Friday, but not at the weekend.
Furious passengers said that they were told in airports that the cancellations were due to Southwest employees walking out in protest at the airline's decision to enforce COVID-19 vaccinations.
But the airline said that that was not the case, and that poor weather in Jacksonville, Florida, sparked a cascading effect.
'Southwest Airlines extends a tremendous apology to our Customers and Employees for the flight cancellations and delays which occurred over the weekend and on Monday,' the airline said.
'On Friday evening, the airline ended the day with numerous cancellations, primarily created by weather and other external constraints, which left aircraft and Crews out of pre-planned positions to operate our schedule on Saturday.
'Unfortunately, the out-of-place aircraft and continued strain on our Crew resources created additional cancelations across our point-to-point network that cascaded throughout the weekend and into Monday.
'Southwest Teams have been working diligently to restore stability to the network, and we are experiencing less disruptions on Monday. We hope to restore our full schedule as soon as possible.
'As a note, the operational challenges were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations.'
The Dallas-based airline was the only airline to report such large-scale issues over the weekend, and customers accused Southwest of not being honest with them about the delays.
It canceled about 360 more flights Monday and delayed 970 others.
Long lines of stranded passengers formed inside the Southwest terminal at Denver International Airport before dawn on Monday.
The scenes were similar to those from August, when frustrated passengers were left stranded at airports after Spirit and American Airlines canceled more than 670 flights over the course of three days.
'You’re clearly lying to your customers. Acknowledge the pilots union striking is the main reason for cancellations. Southwest customer service has been spiraling downward dramatically the past year,' said one man.
'Strange how the ATC issues and weather are still only affecting your airline at MCO,' said another angry passenger.
'Must be some crazy storms if they’re only targeting your planes.'
A third tweeted: 'Keep lying when your staff at Midway specifically told us it was because the Pilots went on strike, because of your vaccine mandate.
'Now we missed a wedding and out luggage is stuck at midway with mine and my wife's medication.'
Another woman wrote: 'This is absolutely horrible! Your lack of compassion & resolution is appalling! My sister has been left stranded in Atlanta while traveling en route to my Wedding scheduled for tomorrow.
'I am now driving round trip from FL to ATL on the EVE of my wedding!!'
But the Federal Aviation Administration denied reports of a 'mass sickout' at the air traffic control center at Jacksonville International Airport, which was said to have affected Southwest.
Also, in a statement to DailyMail.com, the FAA said: 'No FAA air traffic staffing shortages have been reported since Friday.
'Flight delays and cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday afternoon due to widespread severe weather, military training, and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center.
'Some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.
Van de Ven told workers the airline was working to develop a plan to address several shortcomings, including tight staffing on weekends as well as chronic delays and cancellations, according to The Wall Street Journal.
He said that Southwest 'already made significant reductions from our previously published November and December schedules, and if we think we need to do more, we will.'
Southwest blames weather for thousands of cancelations as it apologizes for disruptions
In a statement on Thursday, Southwest Airlines President and COO Mike Van de Ven doubled down on the airline's claims that weather caused the widespread cancelations over the weekend, and not employees protesting the vaccine mandate, as he apologized for the disruptions:
'I’d like to address the operational challenges we faced recently and offer an explanation of what happened. But first, let me begin with our heartfelt apology to everyone whose travel was disrupted by these events: we are truly sorry.
The operational disruption began on Friday and was initially created by weather and air traffic constraints that stalled our Florida operations for many hours. As a result, our aircraft and Crews were not in their pre-planned positions to operate our schedule on Saturday. Unfortunately, the out-of-place aircraft and Crew resources created additional cancelations across our point-to-point network that cascaded throughout the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday. Weather and air traffic constraints were not an issue beyond Friday, but it took us several days to re-set our network after the initial challenges.
Despite widespread rumors and speculation, the weekend challenges were not a result of unusual Southwest Employee activity, and there simply is nothing in our data that indicates that particular reason. Our Employees worked heroically in the midst of these adverse conditions and many came in on off days, or flew additional trips, to help the airline recover. I offer my sincere thanks and appreciation for their tireless work and dedication to serving our Customers.
I’m sure you are curious as to why Friday’s challenges impacted Southwest more than other airlines. For starters, flying to and from Florida is a large portion of our schedule, and disruptions to Florida quickly spread throughout our network given our point-to-point flying. In fact, approximately 40-50% of Southwest’s aircraft fly through Florida on any given day.
Additionally, about a quarter of Southwest’s Crew assignments include at least one Florida city. One of our largest Crew Bases is at Orlando International Airport, and that airport was shut to departing and arriving air traffic for approximately seven hours on Friday—preventing the flow of aircraft and Crews into the network.
We’ve said numerous times, the pandemic is unprecedented and extremely complex—it was messy going into it, and it’s messy as we fight to emerge from it. Going forward, our number one focus is to hire more people—with a goal of hiring more than 5,000 by the end of the year and with 50% of the goal already met.
Additionally, we continue to evaluate potential network schedule changes to mitigate operational risks as we head into the holidays. There is certainly more work to be done as we approach November, and our Teams are dedicated to doing that work to support a reliable operation.
Again, I fully realize that any attempt at an explanation falls short of our ultimate goal of delivering you to your destination on time with our typical Southwest hospitality. You expect and deserve better Customer Service from us, and we are committed to making necessary adjustments to deliver on that expectation.
We are doing our best to proactively reach out to Customers whose travel plans were impacted to offer our apologies and invite them to give us another chance to earn their business. If Customers require assistance from Southwest, they can use one of the airline's self-service options for convenience or Contact Us via one of the methods listed on Southwest.com.
I want to thank our People, and especially our frontline Employees, who have worked around the clock to help Customers impacted by these challenges. They are our true heroes.
Finally, I want to offer my sincere apologies once again to every Customer affected over the past week, and I humbly invite you to give us another chance to make it up to you on your next trip.'