Cargo pilots push for better rules to protect against COVID-19 as shipping demand spikes

Air cargo pilots say they are at risk because of a patchwork of regulations and a shortage of personal protective equipment at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing the world's reliance on delivered goods.

Bob Travis, president of the Independent Pilots Association for UPS pilots and a Dallas-area resident, said members are flying on weeklong trips across multiple continents with an insufficient supply of face masks and gloves and without COVID-19 testing.

"The risks that we are facing are really unique in the industry," Travis said. "Our pilots, when they fly internationally, they don't just fly, lay over and then return. We fly for eight, nine or 10 days."

He said pilots are being issued single-use face masks that are often expected to "last for weeks."

Louisville, Ky.-based UPS said it "has gone to great lengths to ensure our pilots' safety," including providing masks and thermometers.

"We have enhanced cleaning protocols for aircraft, facilities and vehicles, and we have educated our pilots about social distancing, frequent hand washing, and other ways to reduce the potential for transmitting the virus," said a statement from UPS spokesman Mike Mangeot. "We also have told them to use private transportation to and from the airports on a layover, and avoid going out in public unless necessary."

Pilot unions are pushing for federal aviation regulators to take a greater role in the COVID-19 pandemic, even though airlines have stepped in with rules for face masks and social distancing on planes.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines' 15,000 pilots, said there needs to be a federal rule for crew members and passengers to wear face masks. Airlines have told passengers they need face masks once they get on board but have instructed crews to relax enforcement once planes depart.

"Although the FAA's statutory authority is to regulate the safe operation of civil aircraft, we are lending aviation expertise to federal public health agencies and airlines as they issue guidance for crew members, including health monitoring, screening protocols and aircraft cleaning," said a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration.

But even commercial airline pilots are suddenly becoming cargo pilots.

American Airlines has started 140 cargo flights a week between spots such as DFW International Airport, Madrid and Hong Kong.

The International Air Transport Association has warned of a shortage of air cargo capacity from the COVID-19 pandemic because commercial passenger carriers, which often fly with cargo, have severely cut back on operations.

Travis, a former American Airlines pilot who went to UPS in the 1990s, said international air cargo pilots are now at risk because of varying international responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including forced nasal swab testing and threatened hospitalizations due to elevated temperatures.

"They are being invasively tested," Travis said. "A crew member was held down in a foreign country to do this testing."

To date, 13 union members have tested positive for COVID-19 out of 2,700 total.

Eric Ferguson, head of the Allied Pilots Association at American, said his union hasn't heard of problems with foreign COVID-19 protocols because the company has helped smooth the process for pilots. American's cargo trips also tend to be to countries where the carrier already has established relationships.

Cargo pilots at UPS and FedEx are also exempted from 10-hour mandatory rest rules and flying limits that restrict pilots at commercial air carriers, such as American and Southwest airlines.

Ferguson said those rules need to be extended to all pilots, especially if commercial carriers are going to blur the lines with cargo-only flights. He said there have been no attempts by American Airlines to work around rest rules.

"But it doesn't make any sense for our pilots carrying cargo to be coming into an airport in Los Angeles or Hong Kong under one set of rest rules and a pilot for a cargo carrier to be coming in with less rest," Ferguson said. "It puts us all at risk."

You may also like...