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UPS pilots want more COVID testing as infections spike

Case count doubles in one month during peak shipping period

A UPS freighter, over Southern California on Sept. 16, 2018. (Photo: UPS)

The pilots’ union for UPS (NYSE: UPS) says the express delivery company is not providing enough COVID-19 testing even as the infection surges among its members. 

The Independent Pilots Association, which represents 3,000 crew members at UPS Airlines, on Monday said 100 pilots contracted the coronavirus in November, double the number of cases that occurred during the prior seven months. The statement was the latest act in an ongoing campaign this year to draw attention to alleged health safety shortcomings at the Atlanta-based parcel and logistics giant.

The IPA’s criticism of UPS was more muted compared to late October when it complained to CEO Carol Tomé that the company was lax in implementing best practices for protecting workers from COVID. At the time, the pilot group said UPS’ response has been inadequate in terms of available testing, contact tracing, notifying workers who have been exposed to infected colleagues and extracting pilots from involuntary quarantine situations overseas. 

Testing has “somewhat improved” since then, with voluntary testing available to those flying international routes out of the Anchorage, Alaska, and Louisville, Kentucky, hubs. But, the IPA said, no testing is available for international crews out of Miami or Ontario, California, for inbound pilots at any of those airports or for UPS crews flying domestically. 

The Memphis Commercial appeal recently reported that FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) pilots are also experiencing rising case numbers for COVID and feeling overworked by the heavy workload this year. In July, FedEx pilots unsuccessfully requested the company suspend flights to Hong Kong over draconian quarantine measures imposed by authorities on pilots who test positive for COVID and what is considered invasive testing.

UPS insists it has created a safe workplace for air crews.

“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 provided our pilots with free, rapid COVID-19 testing and expanded the availability of that testing,” Mike Mangeot, communications director for UPS Airlines, said in a statement.

“Beyond testing, UPS has extensive coronavirus safety protocols for our crewmembers. Our pilots are equipped with face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and thermometers, and we have enhanced cleaning measures for our buildings, vehicles and aircraft. We allow our crewmembers to request alternate flight schedules. And we work with governments around the world to provide for the transit of our pilots through our international network.”

Earlier this year, UPS allowed pilots to opt in for missions to mainland China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated, but the ability for senior pilots to volunteer for China duty does not apply elsewhere around the world, including Hong Kong.

Pilots bid on flight schedules, but they can only drop a flight if someone else agrees to pick up their assignment, IPA spokesman Brian Gaudet said. UPS Airlines has been operating at peak-season levels for months because of the intense demand for airfreight and global shortage of aircraft capacity, which means pilots don’t have the option of sitting out flights.

“The schedule you bid is the schedule you fly,” he said. “Everybody is flying right now.”

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]