United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said the company's push to require employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine was fueled by data showing the hospitalization rates for unvaccinated people in addition to rising concerns over the delta variant.
"The tipping point for me was seeing the statistics that 97% of the people in the hospital are unvaccinated and over 99% of the deaths are amongst the unvaccinated," Kirby said in an interview Monday on "NBC Nightly News."
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As the leader of the Chicago-based airline, Kirby said, "there was simply no choice but to do the right thing for safety."
Last week, United became the first major American carrier to announce that it will require employees in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by late October at the latest amid growing concerns around the highly contagious delta variant.
The airline has about 67,000 U.S.-based employees.
"The delta variant is just one more piece of evidence that shows how important the vaccines are," Kirby said.
Employees will be required to prove that they have had the appropriate number of doses of either the Pfizer, Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine five weeks after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) grants full approval to any one vaccine or five weeks after Sept. 20 —"whichever comes first," Kirby and President Brett Hart said in a Friday memo reviewed by FOX Business.
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The "latest potential deadline" for meeting this requirement is Oct. 25, according to the memo. However, Kirby and Hart, citing media reports, said the FDA is "likely to announce" its full approval for the vaccine as soon as next month, "so the earlier timeline is more likely."
Those who don’t get the vaccine will be terminated, with exemptions granted only for religious or health reasons, officials said.
"We know some of you will disagree with this decision to require the vaccine for all United employees," Kirby and Hart told employees Friday. But, they added, "the facts are crystal clear: everyone is safer when everyone is vaccinated."
After United's announcement, Frontier Airlines followed suit saying it will also require employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 or face "regular" testing for the virus.
However, other competitors such as American Airlines, are offering extra pay or time off to employees who get vaccinated, but have not required them to get the shots.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.