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ICAO calls for sanitary sky corridors to expedite critical cargo flights

Medical supplies shipped as part of Project Airbridge being unloaded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. (Photo Credit: FEMA/Alexis Hall)

Governments should follow harmonized hygiene standards for crews, aircraft and airport facilities so authorities have the confidence to freely allow passage of air cargo flights with essential medical supplies and food, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said Wednesday. Currently such flights face severe delays because of inconsistent border restrictions.

The United Nations agency, with responsibility for managing the administration of international aviation law, is publishing guidelines to ensure COVID-free aircraft, crews, passengers and airports, saying widespread adoption would create sanitary corridors for essential trade and travel. The first set of “clean” standards addresses flight crews for cargo aircraft.

A group of public health and aviation officials convened by ICAO also developed a COVID status card for crew members that can help in getting through customs and immigration checkpoints.

Officials said the objective of so-called “public health corridors” is to ensure continued flight operations with minimal restrictions on aircraft operations, prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and protect the health and safety of crews. The risk-management approach relies on multiple layers of sanitary and hygiene protocols.

The best practices cover disinfection, personnel screening, dealing with those who have come in contact with a suspected or confirmed COVID-positive person, availability of face masks, and crew distancing and hygiene, before, during and after flights, including layovers.

According to the ICAO recommendations, for example, crew members should not use common facilities when staying at a hotel and use room service to eat.

The Air Line Pilots Association and flight attendants in the U.S. have complained that not all airlines are rigorously following public health guidelines. ALPA has been unsuccessful so far in getting the Federal Aviation Administration to make the guidelines mandatory and enforce them.

ICAO also said air carriers should just fly between city pairs and avoid long layovers and transits for crews, to the extent possible. For turnarounds, crew are advised to stay in the aircraft, except for walk-around checks. Carriers should also plan for unforeseen delays, such as for unplanned testing of crew members.

Aggressive testing and quarantine requirements for disembarking crews in China have led airlines such as Delta Air Lines, which is deploying passenger planes as auxiliary freighters during the pandemic, and UPS to use Seoul, South Korea, or Tokyo as operation centers for shuttling in and out of Chinese cities. Full freighter operators that go directly to the U.S. have short windows to load in China so their crews don’t time out their on-duty clocks and violate fatigue-prevention rules. As previously reported, some flights are leaving Shanghai partially full because crews can’t wait until the rest of the load gets through unprecedented warehouse backlogs. In order to maximize their payload, most U.S.-bound freighters make a technical stop to refuel in Anchorage, but airlines can’t afford to install double crews because they are operating at the edge of their crew availability, industry experts say.

In some countries, pilots that have to stay onboard aren’t even allowed on the tarmac to conduct pre-flight safety checks, said Dr. Ansa Jordan, the chief of ICAO’s medical aviation section, in a recent webinar describing the public health corridors.

The ICAO document said cockpits and cabin areas should be disinfected, but that “current evidence doesn’t support the application of additional disinfection procedures for cargo being transported on aircraft during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

ICAO, as well as airfreight industry groups, have previously urged governments to relax quarantines and other rules affecting crews so cargo and rescue flights for stranded travelers can operate without disruption. They have also asked civil aviation authorities to move faster issuing overflight and landing rights for such flights, especially since many flights are operating on irregular, new routes that weren’t approved as part of the normal route structure of recently dismantled passenger networks.

In late April, the International Air Transport Association reiterated its desire for nations to implement temporary measures to ensure that licenses and certificates are extended to remain valid because aviation regulators aren’t able to administer those licenses under local social-distancing mandates. It also asked nations to file those measures with ICAO and mutually recognize them so aircraft can operate without limitations. Without mutual recognition, it said, airlines are faced with uncertainty over whether they might be restricted by countries whose territory they enter.

Many aviation regulators have already provided airlines and licensed crews with extensions for licenses, ratings and certificates. 

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 and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]