Pilots union demands FAA get tough with airlines on COVID-19 precautions

A cabin gets sprayed with disinfectant by someone in a hazmat suit

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) says the Federal Aviation Administration’s latest guidelines for protecting flight crews from  exposure to the coronavirus are going unheeded by airlines.

The FAA was scheduled to meet Monday afternoon with airline industry officials to discuss the guidelines, which cover health monitoring, screening protocols and aircraft cleaning,  

ALPA, the representative for 63,000 pilots at passenger and cargo carriers such as FedEx Express and United Airlines, says several airlines are failing to properly sanitize cockpits and training equipment and are using disinfectants with less than 70% alcohol content.

The airlines also are routinely failing to tell employees who have come into contact with coworkers who have tested positive for COVID-19, the union said.

Three ALPA members have died and more than 250 have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the union. 

“The U.S. passengers and businesses that depend on air transportation need and deserve swift and decisive leadership by the FAA to not only protect the health of the individual airline pilots who are serving on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, but also to ensure that the United States will have pilots available to drive our national and global economic recovery,” ALPA President Joseph DePete said in a  letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson.

“Releasing an unenforceable ‘safety advisory’ to ask that airlines protect public health and safety is categorically insufficient to protect pilots.”

Pilots are still working despite airlines reducing capacity by up to 90%. Airlines are maintaining a limited route network to transport medical personnel and others who need to travel despite widespread stay-at-home orders, 

They are also carrying medical supplies and other goods supporting economic activity on dedicated charters and repatriating vacationers stranded overseas.

 Meanwhile, all-cargo airlines are operating at full capacity hauling medical supplies for government and private relief efforts.

Airline industry groups say their members have made crew safety and well-being a priority throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, ALPA forwarded to regulators specific examples of airlines that are inconsistently applying the public health recommendationsdeveloped in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or not following them at all. It argues that enforcement is required to ensure airlines comply with health protocols.

The updated guidance, issued on Friday, is more clear, reflects the growing understanding of virus transmission in people without symptoms, and includes new instructions on face coverings. But ALPA insists the voluntary approach isn’t working. 

ALPA escalated its complaints to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao after the FAA declined to  mandate airlines follow the CDC guidelines.

Other examples of lax airline compliance include posting signage indicating the flight deck has been cleaned when no cleaning personnel have entered the area and failing to direct crewmembers to self-quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19, according to ALPA.

In a letter last week, Dickson responded that the FAA “is not a public health agency,” adding  the CDC guidance is intended to provide airlines “with a reasonable and standard approach” for employee and passenger health.  

Dickinson said the FAA takes seriously any allegations of airline failure to adhere to crewmember health guidance, but  airlines are responsible for the occupational health of their workforce. 

“The FAA will reinforce the importance of airlines heeding CDC guidance and clarify those expectations if needed,” he said. “We also will determine if additional actions are necessary or feasible to motivate compliance.”

DePete appealed on April 16 to three U.S. airline trade associations to join forces in asking the FAA to mandate compliance with the CDC guidelines.

“By failing to act and exercise its authority, the FAA is putting added risk in the aviation system, jeopardizing the transport of our passengers and cargo and prolonging the public perception that it is unsafe to fly,” he said in a letter. 

ALPA’s Canadian division says the Canadian government has also stopped short of mandating measures that protect pilots.

The FAA says it is organizing an Aviation Safety Town Hall to reinforce the importance of crew safety during the coronavirus crisis.