Aviation Labor Leaders Call For Federal Enforcement Of CDC Pandemic Guidelines

Credit: Atlas Air Worldwide

WASHINGTON—Aviation industry labor unions called on the U.S. government to enforce medical guidelines to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, saying their members risk ongoing exposure to infection despite a dramatic decline in air travel.

In an April 6 conference call organized by the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions, aviation labor leaders said that airlines are not consistently following guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to contain the spread of the virus. The leaders also warned that timely test results for COVID-19 infection are difficult to obtain and personal protective equipment to minimize exposure is in short supply.

“Our members are being increasingly put at risk and that’s why we’ve asked the FAA to mandate current voluntary CDC guidelines about workplace notification of [positive] tests of COVID-19 cases,” said Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. “This is not a time to just hope that companies will voluntarily inform workers who have been exposed, we must mandate it.”

DePete said the pilots’ union wants the FAA to enforce guidelines for cleaning cockpits and the use of approved disinfectants on flight training devices. He credited the agency for changing a rule that requires a pilot to wear an oxygen mask above 25,000 ft. when the other pilot leaves the controls by increasing the flight level to 41,000 ft.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said flight attendants have faced the risk of exposure to the virus since the first indications of the pandemic in late December 2019. Across the industry, 100 flight attendants have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,000 are self-quarantining because of potential exposure.

A Philadelphia-based flight attendant with American Airlines died from COVID-19 while awaiting test results at home, Nelson said. She called on the FAA, its parent organization the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT), and airlines to halt all remaining leisure air travel.

“While our airlines worked with us better than in any communicable disease outbreak in the past, we have not seen the kind of coordinated response from the government that is necessary to combat the spread of this disease,” Nelson said. “For example, we had inconsistent CDC guidelines between passengers and crew. We’ve had personal protective equipment supply chain issues, where our airlines are not able to get the supplies to [equip] on our planes. We’ve had problems getting tests.”

Seventy-five air traffic controllers, technicians and facility managers have tested positive for COVID-19, even as air traffic operations have declined by 60-70%, said Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. As of April 6, the FAA reported that 35 total airport towers, approach control facilities and enroute centers have closed temporarily for cleaning after suspected infections.

Several technicians represented by the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union tested positive for the coronavirus at the first affected facility—the tower at Chicago Midway International Airport—announced by the FAA on March 17.

“Like all public servants, we’re still on the job during this national emergency, ensuring that critical medical personnel and cargo are reaching their destinations even as commercial air traffic has been drastically reduced,” said PASS national president Mike Perrone. “Like employees at many federal agencies, however, our members received inconsistent and sometimes contradictory information as this crisis unfolded from the [Trump] administration and the Office of Personnel Management and for us, from the Department of Transportation and the FAA,” Perrone added.

Labor leaders said they are generally pleased with the $61 billion airline relief package contained in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump, which will support industry wages and payroll through September. But they blamed Senate Republicans for preventing health care coverage of airport concession and airline kitchen and catering workers.

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.