United Airlines Inc. told a federal judge the company is spending millions on paid leave for unvaccinated pilots because their colleagues “refuse to risk their safety” by flying with them.

The leave is costing United about US$1.4 million every two weeks -- money it’s unlikely to recover even if it wins a lawsuit challenging the airline’s vaccine mandate for all U.S. employees, United argued in a filing on Friday in federal court in Fort Worth, Texas.

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman was unmoved. On Monday, he extended until Nov. 8 a temporary restraining order he imposed earlier this month barring the airline from placing unvaccinated workers with a religious or medical objection to its mandate on unpaid leave.

Pittman, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the TRO will maintain the status quo while he decides whether to block United’s vaccine mandate for the remainder of the litigation, as plaintiffs have requested.

Without a restraining order in place, hundreds of workers might be “compelled to take a vaccination in violation of their religious beliefs or medical restrictions” or face “being placed on indefinite unpaid leave,” Pittman wrote.

The plaintiffs had argued over the weekend that vaccinated pilots should “not know whether they are flying with an unvaccinated pilot” and that “United should be informing its pilots -- as they do the general public -- that the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a United airplane is almost zero.”

United argues the order is unwarranted because pilots who sued would get “money damages and retroactive seniority if they ultimately prevail on the merits.” 

While the cost cited in the filing is relatively small for a company of United’s size, the airline industry is still struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic that devastated its business in 2020. The company announced a loss of more than US$7 billion last year as air traffic nearly ground to a halt. 

The case is Sambrano v. United Airlines Inc., 21-cv-01074, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth).