Air cargo carriers implement coronavirus protections

Cargo planes parked at busy airport

The ability to move goods in and out of China by air could hinge on the willingness of freighter aircraft pilots to fly into key industrial cities where the coronavirus is prevalent. All-cargo carriers are filling some of the lost capacity associated with the pull down of most international passenger flights to China, and are taking protective measures to alleviate concerns of jittery crews.

On Wednesday, the union representing UPS (NYSE: UPS) pilots said it had reached an agreement with the company giving members the ability to voluntarily decide whether to accept flights in and out of China. Pilots can take a personal leave day for trips containing a flight segment connecting through mainland China, the Independent Pilots Association said in a statement.

Safety concerns are also top of mind for pilots at Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), where pilots are also operating on a voluntary basis, Robert Kirchner, the trustee for Local 2750 of the Teamsters union, told FreightWaves.

“Anyone of our crew members so far that has shown any apprehension about going over there is taken off the trip,” he said in a phone interview. “When crews go over there, we worry about two things: their physical safety and their mental state. You can imagine that a pilot who is distressed and upset is not somebody you want at the controls.”

Kirchner said newer pilots that have not experienced international pandemics are more likely to opt out of China flights compared with older pilots who have been through similar situations with SARS, Ebola and other outbreaks.

There are more than 564 confirmed deaths in China from the flu-like coronavirus and 28,000 confirmed cases. Based on confirmed and suspected cases, Cowan brokerage analysts estimate the spread of the disease is tracking to infect at least 85,000 people. Chinese authorities are taking extraordinary measures to contain the new virus, including locking down Wuhan and other major cities in Hubei province where the outbreak originated. Public transportation is shut down and travel forbidden in and out of those cities.

Wuhan, with a population of 11 million people, is a major production center and a significant transit point on the Yangtze River for containers headed to seaports for export.

More than 40 airlines have suspended a total of 25,000 weekly flights to China so far, according to airline data aggregator OAG Aviation Worldwide, removing substantial bellyhold capacity from the market that logistics companies relied on to move perishables, pharmaceuticals, electronics, automotive parts and other high-value products.

Below-deck space accounts for 45% of total capacity on the trans-Pacific trade lane to North America and the westbound lane to Europe, according to industry experts.

On Thursday, American Airlines extended its suspension of flying to Hong Kong from Los Angeles through March 27, citing the extreme drop in travel demand. Flights to Hong Kong from Dallas-Fort Worth are scheduled to resume Feb. 21, the carrier said.

Cargo opportunities for freighter operators remain limited at the moment, with factories in China closed for an extended national holiday ordered by authorities through the weekend, but business is expected to spike once manufacturers reopen and production returns to normal. 

FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) and UPS say they are still operating normally in China but are adjusting schedules as necessary to deal with travel restrictions and other conditions. In a statement, FedEx said it is supplying surgical masks, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes to crews and vendors, and disinfecting facilities in areas where outbreaks have occured. FedEx also is checking the temperature of employees and outside suppliers reporting to work at FedEx gateways and aircraft ramps.

A UPS spokesman said crews are being provided particulate-filtering respirator masks and hand-sanitizing gel, as well as advice on how to help prevent contracting infectious diseases and what to do should they exhibit any symptoms.

Atlas Air is operating fewer flights than normal in and out of China because volume is down significantly. “Freight is piling up over there” with warehouses having diminished workforces to process freight and trucking companies prevented from making deliveries, Kirchner said. Much of the current activity involves transporting medical supplies to China.

Atlas Air, Purchase, New York, is providing masks, taking precautions with catered meals, restricting who comes near the crew and the aircraft, checking the temperature of ground workers, and sanitizing planes departing China, Kirchner said. The airline has also eliminated overnight stays for crews except in Hong Kong.

Pilots are often being switched in Japan or Seoul before flying to China, or planes will carry four pilots so they can keep them onboard without a crew change, Kirchner said.

Border closures and quarantines are also posing a challenge to airline and charter crews, Kirchner said. The U.S., Australia, Russia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy are denying entry to foreign visitors who have recently been in China, despite global health officials advising against such measures because it could accelerate the spread of the virus as people try to enter countries unofficially.

“If you have a crew member go through China and he gets quarantined someplace else, we lose the crew member and it’s a hardship on the crew member,” Kirchner said. In the U.S., flight crews are exempt from quarantine requirements.

The union boss praised Atlas executives for working with pilots on measures to mitigate health risks and stressed that the discussions on safety are being kept separate from the contentious contract negotiations that have disrupted some operations and jeopardized Atlas’ relations with mega-customer Amazon.

Dan Loh, vice president of investor relations at parent company Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, declined to comment on how the carrier is dealing with the virus outbreak.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t know the lifespan of the new coronavirus on hard surfaces yet, but officials believe it is short and that the probability of transmission is low except by person-to-person contact, according to guidance posted on the Air Line Pilots Association website.