Pilots at American and Southwest airlines are being warned to keep vaccine mandate issues out of the cockpit due to potential flight safety concerns.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American's 14,000 pilots, sent a memo to members Tuesday about an increase in distractions due to looming deadlines to get vaccinated and sharply divided views on the topic.
The subject line: "Distractions cannot affect safety.''
"We are seeing distractions in the flight deck that can create dangerous situations,'' the memo from the union's safety committee said.
The number of pilots self-reporting vaccine mandate talk or concerns to the Federal Aviation Administration as a distraction on the job has spiked, union spokesman Dennis Tajer said.
►From vaccines to testing: What travelers need to know before the new US travel system on Nov. 8
►'You feel lonely and left out': These fully vaccinated travelers want to visit the US. They may not be allowed in.
Tajer called the increase in reports to the FAA's Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP) a "big, big deal.'' He likens the program to a "see something, say something'' report.
"It doesn't mean an incident happened,'' he said.
But it does mean pilots voluntarily reported some level of preoccupation with vaccine mandates — whether for, against or indifferent — as a distraction, he said. Pilots must attach their names to the reports, which are designed to be informative, not punitive, he said.
The union says another flight feedback system, using input from inflight auditors under a separate program, also confirms the increase in distractions.
Some pilot distractions are expected
Tajer said some distractions are to be expected during this "stressful'' time as some pilots fear losing their jobs soon if they don't get vaccinated. But he said it's essential that pilots put those concerns aside and focus on their jobs.
"It’s not a scolding message, it’s a reminder message,'' he said. "I hear you, I hear you on that (vaccine mandates), but let's get back to the (flight) checklist.''
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) sent a similar alert to its pilots on Oct. 9, amid the airline's meltdown that some blamed on a pilot walkout over vaccine issues. The company and the union vehemently denied that was the cause but that didn't stop those who oppose vaccine mandates, including Sen. Ted Cruz, from cheering on the pilots all over social media.
The memo to Southwest pilots acknowledged increased fatigue has been a distraction among pilots this year as travel surged and staffing levels couldn't keep up. The vaccine mandate announcement, it said, "only exacerbates'' the situation.
"We are not here to debate the merits of the vaccine mandate. We are here to emphasize that the focus of each SWAPA pilot must be on operating the aircraft at the highest levels of safety in the industry,'' the union memo said. "There is absolutely nothing more important or sacred."
Like American's pilot union, Southwest's cited an increase in the ASAP reports to the FAA, as well as in other measures of distractions.
"Recent ASAP reports have shown that distractions have entered the cockpit, impeded performance, and become contributing factors to many error chains,'' the memo said. "These distractions must be mitigated.''
The FAA said in a statement to USA TODAY that it is aware of the pilot union concerns.
"We take all reports seriously and will follow up through our well-established safety programs,'' the statement said.
How the federal vaccine mandate impacts airlines
Airlines are subject to the vaccine mandate for federal contractors, President Joe Biden announced in September, because they carry government employees and U.S. mail and operate charter flights. Delta estimates federal contracts bring in "hundreds of millions'' in revenue every year.
Major airlines are taking different approaches to adhering to the mandate and vaccinations in general. United is at the forefront, implementing an internal mandate a month before Biden's federal mandate.
►Need to show proof of COVID vaccination?: How to safely store vaccine info on your phone
Instead of a mandate, Delta Air Lines plans to charge workers who refuse the vaccine $200 a month.
American has told employees they risk being terminated if they don't get vaccinated by a looming deadline, while Southwest says it won't fire workers but hasn't said what will happen to those who aren't vaccinated. The airline, trying to keep the peace with workers, some of whom protested at the airline's headquarters earlier this week, has been encouraging workers to apply for exemptions.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: American, Southwest vaccine mandates: Unions warn of pilot distraction