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Regional airline discouraged pilots from getting COVID vaccine because of increased passenger demand

American Airlines subsidiary Piedmont Airlines discouraged pilots from getting COVID vaccines last weekend "due to high demand" for flying, according to a memo obtained by CBS News.

In the memo sent last Wednesday, Piedmont Airlines Chief Pilot John Pursell told the regional carrier's 500 pilots, "Piedmont will be unable to release any additional pilots for COVID vaccination for the weekend of March 19-21 due to high demand."

Demand for travel has been on the rise throughout March, hitting a pandemic high of more than 1.5 million passengers screens at TSA checkpoints on Sunday. 

Pursell told pilots they would need to "attempt to schedule later in the month" so the airline could maintain "operational reliability." 

Piedmont is a wholly-owned subsidiary of American Airlines with bases in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The regional carrier operates 50 seat Embraer E-145 airliners.

A source at the airline told CBS News that several pilots were denied the time off to get a COVID vaccine last weekend due to a lack of sufficient reserve pilots to cover their shifts. The source added that while employees are happy the airline is busy again, "pilots need to be allowed to be protected...without retribution."

The FAA does not allow pilots to fly for 48 hours after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine shot, a regulation that could strain the airline's ability to keep pace with increasing travel demand that had it "operating at near capacity of both aircraft and available crews," according to the memo.

"We fully recognize the desire to get vaccinated as soon as possible," said another memo titled "COVID-19 Vaccination Policy" sent to all Piedmont pilots on March 11 and obtained by CBS News. "While we encourage every pilot to get vaccinated, the requirement to wait 48-hours before returning to flight duty is causing serious crew coverage concerns."

The memo says the airline will provide "maximum schedule flexibility," but told pilots they "must make every effort to schedule their single-shot vaccine or the first shot of a two-shot vaccine during their off-time and when the required 48-hour post period will not interfere with their flight schedule."

Vaccine appointments in many states remain in short supply.

The airline said that last weekend the Charlotte airport hosted a vaccination clinic for airport employees, including those working for Piedmont. The airline has a crew base at Charlotte Douglas International Airport and says it granted permission to as many pilots as it could without canceling flights, prompting the March 17 email.

"Piedmont is strongly encouraging all of our team members to get vaccinated and offering an incentive to do so," Piedmont's director of corporate communications, Crystal Byrd, said in a statement. "Due to FAA requirements of our pilots to remain out of work post vaccine, we are doing our best to offer flexibility while serving the needs of our customers."

Byrd said pilots are "encouraged to work with their leadership team to secure the necessary time off to receive their vaccine."

The airline believes it is unlikely a similar situation involving a large vaccination event at a hub airport on a busy travel weekend will occur again.

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