Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told an audience of Detroit business leaders Friday that the airline's forthcoming $200-per-month surcharge for unvaccinated employees is pressuring more workers to get the shots.
In late August, Delta announced a future $200-per-month surcharge for employees on the company's self-insured health plan who aren't fully vaccinated for COVID-19. This surcharge is fair, Bastian said, because the average cost to Delta for an employee's COVID-19 hospital stay is $50,000.
Bastian said the surcharge doesn't take effect until Nov. 1 but is already achieving results. The vaccination rate for employees was 75% when the policy was announced and now is over 90%.
"As it starts kicking in the next few weeks, that number could easily go north of 95%," Bastian said Friday during a Detroit Economic Club meeting.
Delta's is taking a different approach to workforce vaccination than other airlines such as American Airlines and United Airlines, which have told employees they risk being terminated if they don't get vaccinated by the looming deadline.
► 'Dangerous situations':Unions warn pilots to focus on flying, not federal vaccine mandate
► Airline vaccine mandates:Could holiday travel be affected by airlines' employee vaccine mandate?
“Am I going to force someone to lose a 25-, 30-, 40-year career because they had some deep-seated concern about the vaccine? I have a hard time doing that," Bastian said. "These mandates, unfortunately, are really blunt instruments.”
At Delta, he said, “If you are not vaccinated, you have a choice. You can either get vaccinated or you’re going to pay an insurance charge.”
Bastian said the company can grant exemptions to the surcharge for those with medical or religious reasons for not getting vaccinated.
A Delta representative would not comment on whether the surcharge applies to those who aren't vaccinated, yet recently recovered from COVID-19 and presumably have natural immunity.
Detroit Metro Airport is Delta's second-largest hub in the world after Atlanta. Today, Delta is back to about 80% of its pre-pandemic domestic flight schedule, Bastian said, and by next summer, it hopes to be 90% to 95% back and operating more than 400 flights a day.
The chief executive said business travel is gradually rebounding and now at about 50% of 2019 levels. He predicts it will be back to 80% to 90% by the end of 2022. Eventually, "it’s going to come back more than 100%," he said, without specifying a date for that full return.
Bastian said Delta's international bookings have surged since the Biden administration's announcement earlier this month that beginning Nov. 8, the U.S. will drop its inbound travel ban for travelers from dozens of countries, including European Union member states, the United Kingdom and China, and will allow those travelers in who are fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID-19.
► From vaccines to testing:What travelers need to know before the new US travel system on Nov. 8
On the climate change front, Bastian said it is hard for Delta to become carbon-neutral because of the nature of air travel and the technical difficulty of fully electrifying jets. He believes the eventual solution for jet travel will involve cleanly produced hydrogen as a fuel source, "but that’s probably 20 years from now.”
In the meantime, Delta is observing how each of its new passenger jets are about 25% more fuel-efficient than those they replace, he said, and the airliner has retired about 200 old jets since the pandemic began.
► Unruly passenger behavior: American Airlines bans passenger after flight attendant injured
Delta has committed to replacing 10% of its airplane fuel with "sustainable aviation fuel" by 2030, Bastian said. This type of fuel can be produced from various feedstocks, manures and agricultural wastes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.