Pilots raise concern with FAA about protection from coronavirus

A maintenance worker sprays an airplane cabin to disinfect it.

(Updated: 10:45 A.M. EST, with comment from Airlines for America)

Pilots are calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure airlines are following federal health guidelines for notifying workers when a colleague tests positive for the coronavirus and properly disinfecting cockpits.

The Air Line Pilots Association on Thursday urged the agency to order airlines to comply with notification guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to do a better job sanitizing workspaces.

The group, which represents 63,000 pilots at 35 U.S. and Canadian carriers, said the FAA’s existing safety alert isn’t strong enough to get airlines to strictly follow the government guidelines.

“Written directives with legal authority and the risk of FAA enforcement action, fine or penalty are necessary to assure full adherence to the CDC standards. Failures to follow these minimum standards risk greater spread of infection and increased loss of life,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson.

Airlines are not uniformly obeying guidance to notify crew members who have had prior contact with individuals subsequently determined to be infected by the coronavirus and to clean aircraft between flights with disinfectants that have a minimum 70% alcohol-based solution, the letter claimed.

“Airlines ranging from cargo, to mainline, to regional carriers have reportedly been not in compliance with voluntary CDC guidance,” ALPA spokesperson Corey Kuhn added in an email.

Cargo airlines with pilots who belong to ALPA are FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), Air Transport International and Kalitta Air.

There are more than 246,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 5,900 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Airlines say they are taking pilot safety seriously and adhering to recommended precautions to keep workers safe.

“I have spoken to our members and all of them have told me they are strictly following all CDC, FAA and World Health Organization COVID-19 best practices and indeed, going beyond the four corners of those requirements, to protect their employees,” Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, told FreightWaves, adding it’s difficult to respond to unspecified allegations.

“The safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is – and always will be – the top priority of U.S. airlines. Since the onset and throughout the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. carriers have closely followed and complied with all health and safety rules, as well as CDC and FAA guidance provided to airlines for passengers and crew, and will continue to do so,” Airlines for America said in a statement provided to FreightWaves.

On its website, all-cargo carrier Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW) says its enhanced cleaning protocols include wiping down all hard surfaces touched by customers and employees with a high-grade disinfectant and multipurpose cleaner before and after each flight. All cockpit areas are also disinfected by maintenance personnel. And all aircraft arriving from areas with CDC travel notices also have a heavy cleaning performed at the first station of arrival, with a detailed checklist of everything done presented to the flight crew as proof the cleaning and disinfection was completed in the cabin.

In addition to the aircraft cleaning procedures, full safety kits are given to each crew member and are stocked on all aircraft. The kits include masks, rubber gloves and individual alcohol wipes for sanitizing purposes.  Thermometers are also provided to every crew member, with instructions to take their temperature twice a day and watch for symptoms (fever, cough or difficulty breathing).

Atlas Air said its Pilot Support Group contacts every crew member to confirm they have not experienced symptoms. If any symptoms are detected, the crew member is immediately self-quarantined and monitored.

In February, Robert Kirchner, the trustee for Teamsters union Local 2750 that represents Atlas pilots, complimented the company for efforts to protect pilots from infection when flying to China.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) has implemented a fogging procedure using a high-grade disinfectant that is sprayed throughout the cabin and crew areas before regular cleaning by cleaning crews. It’s the same type of sanitizing spray used in hospitals, it says.