The union representing 3,000 UPS pilots says the number of members testing positive for COVID has significantly increased and complained the express carrier is not doing enough to protect air crews or bring them home when sick or hospitalized abroad.
More than 100 pilots have contracted COVID since the start of the pandemic and between 30 and 70 are in quarantine at any given time, Brian Gaudet, spokesman for the Independent Pilots Association, told FreightWaves.
IPA President Robert Travis on Thursday asked UPS CEO Carol Tomé to intervene, claiming that health and safety recommendations to lower management have languished.
The union chief suggested that a spike in COVID cases could disrupt UPS’ operations during the peak shipping season.
“These union claims are baseless,” UPS Airlines spokesman Mike Mangeot said.
During a call with analysts Wednesday to discuss UPS’ earnings, Tomé said the carrier is concerned about the recent rise in COVID cases around the world and that any outbreak among pilots would be “a real problem,” adding “we haven’t seen that, but we’re just watching this very, very closely.”
UPS (NYSE: UPS) should greatly expand pilot access to testing — both before and after flight assignments — greatly improve the way it conducts contact tracing and utilize specialized medical evacuation flights, if necessary, to expedite the safe return home of pilots testing positive for COVID abroad, the IPA said in a letter to Tomé.
“UPS pilots spend many hours confined together in small aircraft spaces both as part of the operating crew and as jumpseaters [using auxiliary seats]. In these conditions, social distancing is virtually impossible,” Travis wrote.
“While, at our urging, the company has offered limited testing, what is being offered currently is woefully inadequate, and leaves the pilot group exposed to the rampant transmission of the virus while at work.”
The Atlanta-based parcel carrier is not following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for contact tracing and notifying employees when they’ve had exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID, the IPA also complained. The union, for example, said all pilots in Boeing 757s, which have smaller crew areas than other planes in the fleet, should be quarantined if a crew member becomes infected.
The problem, according to the union, is highlighted by a case in which UPS didn’t quarantine the entire crew after 12 hours together on the flight deck when a pregnant pilot found out mid flight from Asia as a passenger that she had tested positive.
“The widespread perception among UPS pilots is that the company’s contact tracing efforts are flawed, inconsistent, and more geared to keeping flights moving rather than basing quarantine decisions on objective medical standards. At a minimum, the company’s actions in this regard lack transparency, and therefore generate no confidence among pilots that UPS is acting in the best interest of their health and safety,” Travis said.
The IPA in March agreed with UPS on a two-year extension of their labor contract. Whether there are underlying decisions the union is trying to influence beyond health issues is unclear in the absence of a contract dispute.
Travis acknowledged that UPS has been able to repatriate sick crew members in many cases, but said it needs to use its clout to secure the release of an asymptomatic pilot who tested positive and is now hospitalized in Hong Kong against his will. The pilot is sharing a small room with a very sick COVID patient who is being placed on a ventilator, according to the IPA.
In March, UPS agreed to let pilots opt in for assignments to China when some balked at potentially being subjected to aggressive testing and quarantine measures there. A similar request for Hong Kong flights was denied, Gaudet said. FedEx pilots also complained at the time about conditions in Hong Kong after three pilots were forced to quarantine in the same room with multiple patients.
“As part of UPS’s culture of safety, we have gone to tremendous lengths to keep our pilots safe during the coronavirus pandemic. We have equipped crewmembers with face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and thermometers, educated them on social distancing on health protocols in areas where they fly, and enhanced cleaning protocols for our buildings, vehicles and aircraft,” Mangeot said.
“We have allowed our pilots to request alternate flight schedules, provided them with free, rapid COVID-19 testing, and worked with government entities to ensure our crews’ safe and healthy transit through nations around the world.
“As essential workers, our pilots have been heroes during the pandemic, operating flights that are saving lives and livelihoods all over the planet. We are proud of their efforts, and we remain confident they will continue flying a safe, reliable and on-time network in this era of need,” he added.