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Exclusive: UPS pilots detained in Hong Kong while awaiting COVID test results

US defends FedEx in dispute over pilot quarantines

UPS and FedEx pilots say aggressive health measures in Hong Kong jeopardize their wellbeing. The U.S. government is pushing back to even competition. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here. (Photo: Flickr/Aero Icarus - CC BY-SA 2.0)

UPS pilots disembarking for rest in Hong Kong report they are being forced to wait in government facilities for COVID-19 test results rather than proceed to their hotel, a situation that could escalate tensions with the U.S. over restrictive COVID-19 health measures on aircrews arriving in the semiautonomous city.

The U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this week retaliated against Hong Kong’s aggressive quarantine measures for pilots that are impacting cargo flights by FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), but give a pass to certain flights by local carrier Cathay Pacific.

“Crews laying over in Hong Kong are now subject to new rules requiring that crewmembers tested for COVID-19 upon arrival must wait for test results prior to being allowed to proceed to the crew hotel,” the union representing UPS (NYSE: UPS) pilots said in a communication to members obtained by American Shipper.

“The Independent Pilots Association objects to any such new rule and is taking these objections to UPS and to the U.S. government. If you layover in Hong Kong and experience any new procedures, including delays or increased wait times, please file a detailed event report,” the message said.

The IPA called Hong Kong’s entry procedures unacceptable, adding that they impact rest and duty time. From a health perspective, however, Hong Kong has done a better job than most countries in containing COVID. The city of 7.5 million people has had 11,379 cases and 203 deaths, according to to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Data Repository. New York City, by comparison, has suffered 794,000 cases and 30,564 deaths.

Hong Kong requires airline crews take COVID tests before departure and only fly to Hong Kong if they test negative. On certain flights, as previously reported by American Shipper, UPS pilots take a rapid test in the air before descent and forward the results to avoid being quarantined in mass settings at the expo center or hospitals against their will. If the in-flight test is positive, the pilots stay at the airport and leave on the next outbound UPS flight. Hong Kong, which is increasingly influenced by the central government in China, also conducts an invasive PCR test with a nasal swab when crews leave the airport. 

Until now, crews were allowed to wait for results at their hotel and only sent to government quarantine facilities if they, or a close contact, tested positive. Under the new policy, aircrews must wait for results at designated airport holding rooms.

UPS Airlines has also learned that Hong Kong’s rules now apply to pilots whether they domicile in Hong Kong or not, spokesman Mike Mangeot said in an email. Pilots are spending about two hours in a holding area, although he added that another carrier provided feedback that it took only an hour for a crew to be released.

A third source, not with UPS who asked not to be named, said pilots potentially could be held for several hours, preventing pilots from going to bed right away.

“We continue to work with officials in Hong Kong to ensure the safe and timely transit of our pilots,” Mangeot said. “We don’t anticipate the testing to impact service to our customers.”

FedEx Impact

Earlier this month, FedEx pilots appealed to the highest levels of FedEx to stop layovers in Hong Kong because of the conditions in Hong Kong facilities and asymptomatic pilots being kept in group settings that put them at increased risk of getting sick. 

FedEx also has about 180 pilots home-based in Hong Kong and relocated them, and their families, to San Francisco after Hong Kong in late January imposed two- to three-week quarantines on arriving aircrews domiciled there. The express carrier says the new arrangement has significantly increased operational costs. Cathay Pacific said at the time the rules could cut its cargo capacity by 25%, but it is benefiting from a carve-out on cargo flights from Anchorage, Alaska.

The combination carrier has a large transshipment operation in Anchorage where shipments are relayed from locations in the continental United States. Hong Kong is a hub in FedEx’s intra-Asia network, but the carrier doesn’t fly there from Anchorage and doesn’t benefit from the exemption.  

On Tuesday, the Transportation Department warned it could restrict flights by Cathay Pacific, the fifth-largest air cargo operator by volume, after efforts to resolve the situation went unanswered. It ordered all-cargo and passenger services to file flight schedules by Tuesday to help determine if there are any violations of U.S. law or harm to the public interest.

The order charged Hong Kong with hindering the rightful operations of U.S. carriers to compete under the bilateral air services agreement between the countries. 

“The manner in which Hong Kong has imposed its restrictions disproportionately impacts U.S. carriers to the exclusive benefit of Hong Kong carriers,” the DOT order said. “Hong Kong already has significantly harmed [FedEx’s] operations and drastically upended the competitive dynamics of the market by implementing an exception for Anchorage.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents FedEx pilots, thanked the DOT for trying to level the playing field in the U.S.-Hong Kong market.

“Hong Kong’s actions with respect to coronavirus-related aircrew quarantines are inconsistent, haphazard and pose an ongoing risk to U.S. pilots by forcing ‘close contact’ crews to quarantine upon arrival at a government quarantine camp,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a statement. “We are encouraged by the DOT’s initial step and hope that the DOT and the State Department will continue to press Hong Kong until the onerous testing and quarantine treatment of U.S. crews is rectified.”

FedEx said in a statement, “We hope that the action taken by the U.S. Department of Transportation on March 16 will aid in resolving this matter. Hong Kong is an important market for FedEx, and we continue to operate and serve our customers there with the safety and well-being of our team members as our top priority.”

Most U.S. carriers have ceased overnight crew layovers in Hong Kong to avoid the risk of being sent to quarantine camps and change crews in other locations, such as Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea, to comply with hours-of-service requirements. But the extra stops add time, fuel and other costs for what are supposed to be nonstop flights. 

The aviation dispute comes amid deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China. Officials exchanged tense words Thursday during the first face-to-face meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese officials. Top disagreements involve human rights, democracy, trade and geopolitical influence in Southeast Asia.

Last summer the U.S. threatened to restrict access by Chinese passenger airlines after Chinese authorities were slow to allow U.S. carriers to resume service after initial coronavirus lockdowns that shut down air service to prevent the spread of infections. 

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

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]