Pilots ask FedEx to halt Hong Kong layovers over COVID rules

A white FedEx cargo jet with blue tail climbing through a bright blue sky.

Pilots for Federal Express (NYSE: FDX) are directly appealing to Chairman, CEO and founder Frederick Smith to stop layovers in Hong Kong because of onerous quarantine conditions they say force crews to be hospitalized against their will in substandard quarters and put their well-being at risk.

In a letter posted to Twitter on Friday, Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, repeated calls for the express delivery company to suspend brief rest stays “until these egregious layover conditions are resolved and a safe layover environment is restored.”

Pilots are upset about a number of restrictive health protocols in Hong Kong. 

Flight crews who test positive for COVID-19 upon arrival are remanded to government-selected hospitals, and asymptomatic pilots are kept in the AsiaWorld Expo Center with hundreds of patients in cubicle-style rooms and communal bathrooms. DePete, during testimony last week before the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee about the aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19, described the conditions as “deplorable.”

Last year, ALPA complained that COVID-positive pilots were locked in hospital rooms with another COVID-positive individual even though they were asymptomatic. Some members who tested positive have been detained for more than three weeks, according to the union.

Pilots who may have been exposed to the virus are required to remain in a government quarantine facility or camp for up to 14 days, and a FedEx pilot recently spent at least six days in such a facility. And two pilots who ultimately were found to be negative for COVID-19 were hospitalized and required to submit to blood draws and chest X-rays, DePete wrote.

“This strikes at the very dignity of work,” DePete said during the hearing, adding that it hurts morale because pilots wonder as they enter Hong Kong airspace if they’re going to be able to return home. 

 DePete said efforts to evacuate crew members with an air ambulance are often unsuccessful.

Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, said the U.S. government should intervene to help evacuate pilots who have tested positive in Hong Kong and are denied their freedom.

UPS (NYSE: UPS) is trying a new rapid antigen test under which pilots take samples during flight and forward the results to Hong Kong authorities in an effort to avoid quarantines. The Covi-Stix detection kit has yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but maker Sorrento Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SRNE) says it is much more accurate than other rapid tests.

FedEx resumed layovers three months ago against the wishes of the pilots, who are now going over management’s head to the top of the company.

Last summer, the union asked the express carrier to suspend flight operations in Hong Kong so pilots suspected of having COVID exposure weren’t forced into congregate settings that housed others who might carry the virus and that lacked living comforts. FedEx responded by discontinuing rest stays for several months, but they were resumed in December. 

DePete thanked FedEx for offering in late January to temporarily relocate pilots and their families who live in Hong Kong so they aren’t subject to long separations in public facilities, but said the current working conditions are “wholly unacceptable.”

One potential remedy would be for aircraft to carry double crews so the inbound pilots wouldn’t have to disembark for their required rest period. Such a move, however, would increase operating costs and could reduce pilot capacity elsewhere in the FedEx network.

Since the start of the pandemic, the airline industry has encouraged governments to exempt flight crews from testing and quarantine requirements for the general public because they isolate themselves in hotel rooms and pose less risk of infection. 

DePete said in the letter that it is in FedEx’s interest to protect the health and safety of pilots who have put themselves at risk to transport personal protective equipment, ventilators and other cargo people have relied on during the pandemic.

“Since the onset of COVID-19, our members who fly for FedEx Express have persevered through extraordinary circumstances. ALPA pilots have contributed to the company’s success during the pandemic and made certain that the global supply chain continues to move, including through flight operations into and out of Hong Kong,” DePete said. 

FedEx revenue grew 19% to $20.6 billion while operating income more than doubled to $1.51 billion in its fiscal second quarter ended Nov. 30.

In his testimony, DePete said the U.S. government should move pilots up the priority list for receiving COVID vaccinations because they are vital to delivering vaccines and helping with the economic recovery from the pandemic.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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