Could holiday travel be affected by airlines' employee vaccine mandate? What travelers need to know.

Pandemic travel has been rocky for airline passengers recently, with frequent airline flight changes, ever-changing restrictions and the occasional meltdown of understaffed airlines.

Could the fallout from a looming employee vaccine mandate deadline make things even more challenging during the upcoming holiday travel season? 

A key deadline for airlines to comply with the White House mandate for employees of federal contractors is coming up Nov. 24 – the busy travel day that is the day before Thanksgiving. (The actual deadline is Dec. 8, but airlines set a date two weeks early given that workers aren't fully vaccinated until two weeks after their last shot.)

There is high-profile resistance to the mandates at some large airlines including Southwest and American with just a month to go. Additionally, there’s uncertainty around what happens to those who refuse to get vaccinated or are granted religious or medical exemptions. Would those employees who are not fully vaccinated be let go (American and Southwest say no) or required to undergo regular COVID-19 testing? Either option would impact already thin staffing if large groups of employees are unvaccinated by the deadline.

►'Dangerous situations': Unions warn pilots to focus on flying, not federal vaccine mandate

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"It could be problematic,” said Stathis Kefallonitis, associate professor of aviation business and passenger intelligence at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's College of Business. "I'm not sure the airlines necessarily have the backup staff that they need to replace those people.''

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, whose company implemented a vaccine mandate a month before the federal mandate and has more than 97% of its U.S. employees fully vaccinated and the rest granted exemptions or let go, went so far as to say “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) for travelers booking holiday tickets on airlines with “wishy-washy” vaccine mandate policies.

Kirby called the potential fallout from some airlines' less-than-firm mandate policies the  "biggest incremental risk” in aviation during Wednesday's earnings call. He didn't name the airlines.

Will my Thanksgiving and Christmas flights be impacted by vaccine mandate?

The CEOs of Southwest and American strongly disagree that travel trouble is ahead because of the mandate.

"We are not going to let this disrupt any of our customers' travel, especially during the busy holiday season,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said on the airline's earnings call Thursday.

He said the airline is using its "best efforts” to make the deadline and has not asked the government for an extension. Southwest has not disclosed the percentage of its workers who are unvaccinated.

Kelly said only that a majority of employees have reported their status and of those a "supermajority” have been vaccinated. There is still a “large percentage of workers who have not reported,” he said.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said he expects "virtually everyone” at American to be vaccinated by the Nov. 24 deadline.

"We don’t anticipate any sort of operational impact,'' Parker said on the airline's earnings conference call Thursday. "We anticipate having all the people we need.''

About 3,700 of American's 14,000 pilots are unvaccinated, according to Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association.

If regular COVID-19 testing is required for the unvaccinated, Parker said he doesn't expect it to be "cumbersome.”

United CEO Kirby on Wednesday said a testing requirement for large numbers of workers would "unquestionably” be difficult for airlines.

"If you think weather in one state can lead to a meltdown, can you imagine if you have thousands (of) employees on one day calling in and saying, for some reason my test didn't pass,” he said.

The White House said it doesn't expect issues at airlines or the Transportation Security Administration, where  a reported 40% of workers are unvaccinated ahead of a Nov. 22 deadline for government workers.

"Vaccination requirements will not impact holiday travel,” Jeff Zients,the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said at a briefing Wednesday.

Bob Mann, an airline industry consultant with R.W. Mann & Co. and former airline executive, said the timing of the vaccine mandate deadline is poor for airlines and suggested government officials “didn't refer to the calendar.”

Airlines routinely do big projects such as reservation system changeovers outside of busy travel periods to avoid flight hiccups, he said.

"Would you choose to do it during the Thanksgiving week? I don't think so,” he said.

Mann said the mandate deadline is "potentially disruptive'' but doesn't expect major flight woes.

"It's no more disruptive than finding you're going to have a N'oreaster,” he said. "I wouldn’t particularly worry about it.”