UPS pilots seek option to refuse Hong Kong missions

A white UPS plane with brown tail comes in for a landing above the tree tops. Some UPS pilots are concerned about COVID testing in Hong Kong.

The union representing UPS (NYSE: UPS) pilots has asked the express and freight delivery giant for the option to decline flight assignments to Hong Kong after the city tightened COVID screening requirements for aircrews.

The Independent Pilots Association (IPA) wants the company to extend to Hong Kong an arrangement that allows cargo pilots to opt in for routes to mainland China, spokesman Brian Gaudet said.

The voluntary program “has worked well for us in China,” he said. It provides UPS Airlines all the captains and first officers it needs to operate, and anybody who doesn’t feel safe flying into the theater doesn’t have to sign up.

In the early days of the pandemic, China was very aggressive with nasal swab testing and spraying crews with unidentified disinfectants when they disembarked, but UPS was able to negotiate for different protocols, according to a source familiar with how express carriers operate in that country.

UPS, which operates a regional parcel hub in Hong Kong, has not responded yet to the union, according to Gaudet.

“Throughout the pandemic, UPS has coordinated extensively with our pilots to ensure their safety and continuity of our air express services,” Mike Mangeot, director of strategic communications for UPS Airlines said in email. “We’ve provided them with facemasks, hand sanitizer, and thermometers, enhanced aircraft cleaning protocols, worked with them on scheduling concerns, and educated them on WHO and CDC-recommended public health practices. Our crewmembers have responded admirably in these dynamic conditions.”

UPS continues to operate the vast majority of its services in Hong Kong “with the same time commitments our customers have come to expect, and we have contingency plans in place to avoid significant impact to service,” he said, while declining to comment on talks with the pilots’ union. Mangeot added that UPS is in touch with the government in Hong Kong to ensure the safety of employees and continuity of operations.

FedEx Pilots Upset

The development comes as FedEx (NYSE: FDX) pilots balk at flying to Hong Kong. The Air Line Pilots Association on Tuesday called on FedEx to suspend flights to Hong Kong because of what it termed “unacceptable risks” to the safety and well-being of pilots. The union said pilots are forced to stay in unsafe hospitals or quarantine centers if they test positive for COVID or have been exposed to someone who has.

“Pilots who test positive for COVID-19 face compulsory admission and treatment in government-selected public hospitals, with as many as five patients to a room with one shared bathroom,” Capt. Dave Chase, chairman of the FedEx ALPA Master Executive Council, said in a statement. “In addition, any pilot or family member in Hong Kong found to have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive individual is placed in a government quarantine facility for up to 14 days with very sparse provisions.”

Previously, United Airlines and American Airlines temporarily halted flights to Hong Kong because of invasive tests and concerns crews would be placed out of action for up to 14 days as the city tries to contain a new outbreak of the virus. United (NASDAQ: UAL) has since resumed a couple routes but is making an extra stop in Tokyo or Guam to change crews

On Wednesday, the Hong Kong government tightened rules on incoming aircrews and seafarers even further. Pilots and flight attendants must now have proof of a negative test for COVID-19 48 hours prior to boarding their flight to Hong Kong or otherwise submit to a deep-throat saliva test upon arrival at Hong Kong airport, and wait for the results there or at a designated location.

Since July 8, the government has made it mandatory for air and sea crews to be tested upon arrival at the airport, but they were not required to wait for test results like the general public and didn’t have their movements restricted. Ship crews use the airport when there are crew changes to and from their home countries.

Airlines must also arrange direct transportation for crews between the airport and their hotel, or other accommodation, and prohibit the use of public transportation, according to the new directive. Airlines should also ensure that crew members self-isolate and minimize contact with the local population during their stay, it says. 

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

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