Coronavirus News: United Airlines CEO hopes vaccine mandates put COVID in the rearview

NEWARK, New Jersey (WABC) -- With the delta variant sparking concerns over travel, a major airline CEO is focusing on the silver lining that could bring the industry back.

The millions of people who rely on the airline business were sure things would be getting back to normal right around now.

"Well with COVID we've always known it was not gonna be a straight line, and two steps forward one step back," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said.

But with the nation ravaged by the delta variant, the seat belt sign is still on at United Airlines. Demand, which surged over the summer, has dropped again.

In an exclusive interview, Kirby reflected on the pandemic's deep personal toll. He writes personally to the family of every employee lost to COVID.

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"In the past month I've been writing one to three letters per week to employees who lost their life, all unvaccinated," he said. "And so, to me, once you view the world through that prism, it seemed like no choice. It's about saving lives.:

And so United became the first - and still the only - U.S. airline to mandate the vaccine for every single employee, roughly 67,000 people.

United Airlines employee Lisette Hernandez has worked upstairs, facing customers for a quarter century. She says it's a new normal.

Hernandez is single mom of three, who caught the virus herself last year.

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It is a different tune at this year's back-to-school party in East New York.

"We all worry, we all have the same worry because we deal with people every day," Hernandez said. "We check in customers every day. We don't know what those customers bring with them along with their suitcases."

This Labor Day weekend, United's expecting only three quarters of the volume as in 2019. And now, European regulators have recommended tough new restrictions on visiting Americans.

It's not what any airline executive wants to hear.

"But the good news is that this I think is finally going to drive a high vaccination rate across the country," Kirby said. "And ultimately that is the silver bullet to really put COVID in the rear-view mirror."

This CEO is attempting to steer his company out of the haze, in search for smoother skies.

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