Thousands of UPS and FedEx pilots have flown around the globe for months to deliver doses of Covid-19 vaccines, their landings broadcast as breaking news in the historic vaccination effort.
But many of those pilots have yet to receive the vaccines they’re transporting, because the aviation industry’s attempt to get freight pilots vaccinated early has struggled to gain traction as states take varying approaches to who can get immunized at each stage of the rollout. The average UPS pilot is 52 years old, an age group that is not yet eligible for vaccination in parts of the country.
“Ironically for the last few months UPS pilots have been proudly flying lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines onboard on their aircraft. Yet these same pilots do not have a priority for voluntarily receiving the vaccine,” said Robert Travis, a captain and president of the Independent Pilots Association.
At the same time, FedEx and UPS pilots are testing positive for the virus at a significantly higher rate than the general U.S. population. By the end of February, 963 of the more than 8,100 pilots at these two companies have tested positive.
“As FedEx pilots who travel the world serving our customers while delivering these lifesaving vaccines, we are at increased risk of exposure to Covid-19,” said Dave Chase, a captain and chair of the union’s master executive council. “When we fall ill, this not only reduces our capacity to deliver, but can also affect our families, friends, and others in our communities,” he said.
That has fueled the industry’s full-court press at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like other industries, organizations representing pilots and airline trade groups sent the agency a letter making their case for early vaccination in December.
This coalition pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security designated aviation workers as “essential to maintaining our nation’s critical infrastructure. The group argued that “air transportation will be essential to fight back against the virus and return to normal” and asked that all aviation employees, including pilots, be vaccinated immediately as essential workers.
The CDC hasn’t formally responded to the letter, and vaccine distribution decisions are ultimately up to states. “State health departments have the most up-to-date information on when vaccine is available and use this information to make decisions about who can be vaccinated,” CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said. Federal Aviation Administration administrator Steve Dickson has said his agency complies and endorses the CDC’s state-by-state approach.
Even among those who are eligible, though, their travel schedules can also make it difficult to schedule immunizations. Of course, as vaccination efforts ramp up and more doses become available in the coming months, far broader swaths of the public — including many pilots — will be able to get vaccinated. Being vaccinated now could ease some of the burdens freight pilots face as they land in airports around the world. In Hong Kong, for example, freight pilots are required to test negative on Covid screening to leave the airport.
“It’s a little like three-card monte,” said Brian Gaudet, a spokesperson for the Independent Pilots Association. “Our UPS pilots live in all 50 states and abroad. For example, they might test negative before departing Anchorage, test positive after landing in Hong Kong, and suddenly end up in a makeshift quarantine pod.”
In one case, a Hong Kong pilot quarantining at home after close contact with an infected crew member said that he was told he would have to relocate to a government quarantine facility. In another, Chase said, three pilots who had tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong but were asymptomatic were required to stay in a hospital for 10 days, sharing a single bathroom and room with up to five patients at a time.
“Testing on entry to Hong Kong can be so extreme that we have even had a pilot undergo multiple blood draws and a chest x-ray as a follow-up to inconclusive COVID results,” a FedEx pilots union official said in a recent union newsletter, adding that some pilots have been flown by charter plane to Anchorage “to avoid being sent to mass quarantine facilities.”
The broader flight industry, too, has to grapple with a related concern: the well-being of FAA workers at more than 250 facilities who have contracted the virus. Control towers at major airports in Las Vegas, Denver, and New York, among others, have had ground stops and temporary closures because of Covid-19 infections among staff. As of the end of February, more than 6,800 Transportation Security Administration staff have been infected.
For some freight pilots, the risk of infection and the quarantine that could follow creates uncertainty every time they take off.
“Basically for the length of any trip, flight crews on foreign trips are under house arrest everywhere we go,” said a veteran freight pilot who requested anonymity because the individual did not have company permission to speak to the media. “Watching big containers being unloaded with the vaccines you can’t have makes you want to call your congressman. Unlike us, they’ve been vaccinated.”