By Nathalie Voit

In what amounts to an apparent reversal of its stance from earlier this fall, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said on Oct. 21 the airline would not fire unvaccinated employees despite a federal mandate.

The company previously said on Oct. 4 that staff would need to show proof of vaccination by Nov. 24 to continue employment. The requirements were in line with the Biden administration’s Dec. 8 deadline for vaccinating federal contractors.

“We’re not going to fire anybody who doesn’t get vaccinated,” Kelly said on Thursday. “Nobody is going to lose their job on Dec. 9 if we’re not perfectly in compliance.”

The carrier said it would abandon plans to place unvaccinated workers with a pending medical or religious exemption on unpaid leave. Instead, employees must abide by basic mask and social distancing COVID-19 protocols until their exemption request is thoroughly reviewed, reported CNBC.

“While Southwest encourages every Employee to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, the airline does not intend to lose any Employee over the vaccination mandate,” a spokesperson for Southwest reiterated.

The news comes amid a string of mass cancellations that cost the company $75 million earlier this month. While a “supermajority” of employees are vaccinated, according to Kelly, only half of Southwest’s 56,000 employees have reported their vaccination status or applied for accommodations, the CEO said in an interview on Oct. 21 with CBS News.

Other carriers, like United and American Airlines, have not amended their policies. Although staff won’t immediately be fired if they are not vaccinated, American Airlines still maintains some crew members may lose their jobs if their exemption requests are not cleared after the airline’s Nov. 24 deadline.

“We shared this in a previous employee memo, and it still holds true: To be clear, if you fail to comply with the requirement, the result will be termination from the company,” an American Airlines spokesperson told Business Insider.

American only expects a small portion of its workforce to not comply with the federal mandate.

“We don’t expect anybody to leave American Airlines,” American’s president Robert Isom said.

“The vast majority of our team members are vaccinated, and we’re working through the process,” Isom added during a third-quarter earnings conference call.

The airline’s labor union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), urged White House officials and other key policymakers to seek an alternative means of compliance to the federal mandate, such as regular testing for its roughly 14,000 pilots on a letter issued Sept. 24.

The APA warned the executive order “could result in labor shortages and create serious operational problems for American Airlines and its peers.”

Today, Delta Air Lines is the only major U.S. carrier that has yet to impose a vaccine mandate for its employees. The company noted that about 85% of its 80,000-person workforce was vaccinated earlier this month.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in an interview he expects the staff vaccination rate to climb to 95% by early November.

“I think the spirit of the [federal] mandate was to get people vaccinated. It wasn’t to try to force people with the threat of their jobs if companies are doing the right thing,” Bastian said Oct. 20.