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Southwest CEO says "meltdown"cost $75 million and that only half of staff have reported vaccine status

Only half of Southwest Airlines' 56,000 employees have reported their vaccination status or applied for accommodation, said CEO Gary Kelly, with little more than a month to go before the Biden administration's deadline for airline staff to do so. 

The airline risks losing its federal contracts should staffers not be fully vaccinated by the December 8 deadline. The U.S. government is the airline's biggest client, Kelly said.

In an interview Thursday with CBS News, Kelly said of those who have submitted their status, "a supermajority are vaccinated" and those who are not are being offered a financial incentive to get vaccinated.

"I'm not going to fire anybody," he said.

Gary Kelly, Southwest CEO
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly spoke with CBS News about the airline's staffing. CBS News

Southwest — whose branding includes hearts to reflect the concept of love — is emblematic of companies across the country required to follow federal vaccine rules, but pressured by staff reluctant to comply. 

On Monday, dozens of protestors demonstrated outside the airline's Dallas, Texas headquarters, and its pilot union filed a restraining order this month to prevent members from having to comply. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has issued an executive order prohibiting vaccine mandates, which Kelly said he agrees with.

 "I'm very much for ending this pandemic ... but it doesn't translate into imposing my will on people who are reluctant to get the vaccine for whatever reason," he said. Staff who cannot get vaccinated need to "seek an accommodation, either for medical or religious reasons," Kelly said, which is permitted under President Joe Biden's executive order.

The airline recently reversed its policy to put unvaccinated staff awaiting approval for an exemption to be placed on "unpaid leave" in an effort to calm fears over unemployment. American Airlines, also based in Texas, issued a statement saying Abbot's executive order wouldn't change its requirements and the company intends to follow the federal guidance, which it believes "supersedes any conflicting state laws."

The deadlines are approaching as holiday travel ramps up. Southwest, however, is reducing its schedule. The airline reported a loss of $75 million this month due to the mass cancellation of more than 2,000 flights because of weather and staffing issues in Florida.  

"Our staffing is tight. We don't have the typical productivity from our staff. We have a number of people out on leave, attrition is higher than what we've experienced historically. Attendance is down," Kelly said. 

And the airline is facing new proposed work rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, which proposed Thursday that flight attendants have a longer rest period between shifts, increasing their break to 10 consecutive hours when scheduled for 14 hours or less of work. The rule could go into effect before the end of the year.

Asked if he can assure travelers there won't be a repeat of those mass cancellations, which the Southwest Pilots Union called an "operational meltdown," Kelly responded, "I can certainly say that [we] will be well prepared to serve our customers here in the fourth quarter and over the holidays."

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