Cargo Pilots Suffering Increased COVID Infections


While passenger airlines have drastically reduced schedules, cargo carriers have done the reverse and now pilots are suffering increased COVID-19 infections, according to unions. The infections come just as the carriers are gearing up to distribute millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses in the coming months.

The president of UPS’s Independent Pilots Association, Robert Travis, said its 3000 members had 100 COVID-19 cases between March 25 and Oct. 27, but have reported another 66 since then, according to the Washington Post. On a rate basis, that’s 5533/100,000 population compared to 3905/100,000 for the U.S. as a whole and 773 for the world. The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 5000 FedEx pilots, reports similar increases. “Conditions are significantly worsening during our busiest season and many pilots are at or near their physical and psychological limits,” the union’s leaders wrote in a memo to its members revealed in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

With e-commerce booming because of the pandemic and the normal seasonal uptick beginning early, cargo carriers have been pushed to their volume and schedule limits. The Post reported that the biggest airlines carried 1.6 million tons of cargo in September, up nearly 20 percent from the same period in 2019. As vaccine production comes online, the cargo carriers will face the additional challenge of shipping freezer containers. UPS says it ready for the challenge, but still wary of infection impact on its workforce. “We see cases spiking. It’s concerning, right, because if we were to have disruption, let’s say, in our pilots, that would be a real problem,” Carol Tome, chief executive of UPS, said in an earnings call recently. “Now, we haven’t seen that, but we’re just watching this very, very closely.”

The UPS pilots union has complained about company procedures, saying UPS isn’t doing enough testing and is applying quarantining rules unevenly. The union said until recently, only one of the COVID-19 rapid testing machines UPS got from the government’s Project Airbridge was in use for pilots departing Anchorage for Asia. The Post said UPS called the union’s concerns “baseless.”  

Meanwhile, as recently as September, passenger airlines claim they aren’t seeing COVID-19 spikes among crews. “At United, but also at our large competitors, our flight attendants have lower COVID infection rates than the general population, which is one of multiple data points that speaks to the safety on board airplanes,” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said at a press event.

The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest U.S. flight attendant union, reported just over 1000 COVID-19 infections among its members, a rate of 833/100,000. Cases have rapidly increased in the U.S. since then, but more recent data isn’t available.

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  1. If any of the things that I have read on other pilot forums are true, I’m surprised any crew members are willing to do any international flights. Myself, I have avoided any of the few international trips my company has scheduled, with most of those end up cancelled by the owners/clients anyway.

  2. Okay. Per the story, flight attendants – who interface directly with passengers – have an infection rate of 833 per 100,000. Also, per the story, cargo carrier pilots – who interface with whom?; with what? – have an infection rate of 5,533 per 100,000. That’s 6.64 times the cited rate for the flight attendants. What’s wrong with this picture? Are we to conclude that boxes are more contagious than passengers? If that were the case (and the “experts” tell us that it is NOT the case), then we would expect to see a wildly higher rate of infection among ramp rats. I’m unaware of one.

    Meanwhile, our betters tell us that consuming food in a restaurant is safe – until 10 pm, when it suddenly becomes unacceptably risky until 5 am. But consuming alcohol with that food is unsafe at any time. This has got to be the most clever virus of all time – apparently it infects people on a schedule and per their diet.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

    • “Meanwhile, our betters tell us that consuming food in a restaurant is safe – until 10 pm, when it suddenly becomes unacceptably risky until 5 am. But consuming alcohol with that food is unsafe at any time. This has got to be the most clever virus of all time – apparently it infects people on a schedule and per their diet.”

      What an interesting world it must be where all is black and white with no shades of grey….

      The problem with life is that it rarely can be distilled down to a binary result. Trying to do so ends up with extremist arguments that look for perfect solutions that don’t exist. For example…
      …seatbelts are not 100% safe so seat-belt laws should be rescinded. Along with seat belts themselves.
      …Drunk driving accidents still happen despite drunk-driving laws, so those laws must be completely ineffective.
      …motorcyclists still die despite wearing helmets so helmet-laws don’t work.

      With regards to the virus. The two choices are either A) have everyone in the world stay home for two weeks and don’t mingle with anyone else – the virus will die out for lack of hosts. Or 2) ignore the virus, carry on as before, and let the virus run its course.

      The problem, of course, is both positions are equally absurd. Choice 1 can’t work simply because the world can’t hold its breath for two weeks. Choice B would overwhelm hospitals with tens of millions of patients, many of whom would die for lack of treatment (either for Covid or any of the other ills that may befall people in the normal course of their lives). Both extremes would be devastating to the economy.

      So if we can’t 100% eliminate the spread by quarantining the entire world, nor let the virus sicken or kill everyone, we’re left with finding a middle ground (the shades of grey).

      We can reduce (but not eliminate) the spread of infection by reducing (but not eliminating) the exposure level. Eating at restaurants is not 100% safe until 10PM where it becomes 100% unsafe. That’s a silly retort. But limiting overall restaurant hours will limit exposure without putting everyone out of work. After 10PM is when young(er) people tend to go to restaurants and bars where they crowd closer with fewer inhibitions. Limiting those activities again reduces exposure level and spread.

      It’s all about finding a balance to keep the economy going without trashing the people that make up the economy.

      • We shut down much of the world in the spring for more than those proverbial “two weeks” and all we did was delay the inevitable and convince our government they could keep doing it. It didn’t stop an airborne respiratory virus from finding hosts and it won’t now either.

        The “experts” our leaders relied on ignored more than a century of public health knowledge with their lockdowns and quarantining of the healthy, misused more recent technology of PCR testing and have cause enormous collateral damage as a result, mostly to children and young adults. The press has been profoundly irresponsible as well.

        Since this forum is about aviation, and presumably many readers are pilots who understand the value of objective, data-driven decision making, it is particularly disheartening to see such clearly subjective and partisan behavior in our ranks.

        • “We shut down much of the world in the spring for more than those proverbial “two weeks”….

          Not even close.

          A true quarantine necessary to stop the virus dead in its tracks would require everyone – I mean everyone – to stay home for two weeks. That means no one, not grocery store clerks, doctors, police, nurses, etc., goes out in public.

          Obviously an impossible situation except in the most localized of outbreaks. Hence my assertation.

          But the lockdowns did “delay the inevitable”. Rather, they slowed down the rate of infection. But to think this was a useless exercise is to neglect the full context. The point was to buy time…
          …time for hospitals to get over the surge and develop better procedures for handling the sick. Months later the death rate has been reduced due to better treatments.
          …time to develop a vaccine.

          This latter point is important. If it takes a year to develop a vaccine, then do you want to be killing 10,000 people a day by doing nothing and letting the virus run its course? Or do you want to slow the spread down to 1,000 people a day with partial restrictions? The second choice results in the most lives saved.

          PS – you’re right, many readers are pilots and driven by data. Yet a number of pilots still ignore the data of their fuel gauge, totalizer, and/or watch just because the inconvenience of stopping for gas is too much of a bother.

    • It’s not a “clever virus”, it’s clear evidence of the most politicized propaganda effort in history.

      Masks that do nothing forced on a healthy population and proclaimed the “new normal”, deaths from normal causes chalked up to “COVID”, “experts” who have been wrong about everything from day one – who, with even a modicum of common sense, can believe ANYTHING from the “experts” on COVID?

      • Your assertion is incorrect, the masks are effective. the experts have been wrong about everything, really. Where ‘s your data?

        The politics have certainly gummed up the works with false, misleading and incorrect statements. So it goes

  3. “The Association of Flight Attendants, the largest U.S. flight attendant union, reported just over 1000 COVID infections among its members, a rate of 833/100,000. Cases have rapidly increased in the U.S. since then, but more recent data isn’t available.”

    Talk about the usual manipulation of numbers to make one’s case. The reason that the flight attendants have had…I emphasize HAD…such low numbers is…through the time this data was accumulated…virtually no one was flying. 17% load factors, seat spacing, mask wearing, etc. Even in the confines of an airplane cabin, the mitigation efforts combined with low, economically airline busting load factors, there simply was less human to human contact. But as usual, our data driven society, which has all the info of what I bought at Walmart, when, at which store….”Cases have rapidly increased in the U.S. since then, but more recent data isn’t available.” Really?

    UPS and FedEx airplane drivers have a higher infection rate. Makes sense since they are flying 20% more that they did a year ago, with no measurable increase of available pilots. They have to go to mix it up with personnel, TSA, and all of the people associations and contact that they have to go through to get to the airport to eventually slide into the cockpit times two ( since there are at least presently, two people in the cockpit). That kind of full time employment taking people all over globe and nationally ( with the USA as the globes currentCovid-19 epicenter) would offer significant opportunity for exposure at a 20% increase in frequency over 2019. Why are those increase infection stats shocking?

    This virus seems to have the capability to avoid recent data. This is the stealthiest virus I have ever seen. While we have technology used everyday that can and does eavesdrop data mining every purchase and movement of virtually every consumer in the US and abroad, we never have accurate, up to date Covid-19 data. Then, the average citizen is to make decisions based on old data, equally as sketchy Covid-19 data because we simply refuse to collect it for various political, economically driven purposes that just might be news we don’t want to hear.

    We got 13 million Covid-19 cases, 8 million recoveries, of which 266,000+ has died (3% death rate), with 160,000 new cases per day, losing 1,000+ people per day since spring, and we still have no “recent” data. All of our Covid-19 data seems to be inconclusive, not recent, with talking heads, pundits, and the constant barrage of scientific “experts” all pontificating opinions based on no recent, accurate, up to date data. The flight attendants union has no recent data, the pilot’s unions have no recent data, mainstream media has no recent data, the 50 states have no recent data, the federal government has no recent data, and the scientists have no recent data. But there are 266,000 families who do have recent data with 1,000+ more families per day receiving recent data.

    This virus is the most evasive “thing” that can avoid all data collection with no end in sight. We need to adopt the DNA of this virus into the “stealth” community of technology because whatever Covid-19 does to the human brain, algorithms, the best computer systems triggering massive lack of recent data accumulation, could be a game-changer for global intrigue, offering all sorts of opportunity for coup d’etat by simply infecting the population. Covid-19 eliminates recent data collection and retrieval plus scrambles people’s minds to the obvious, causing mental blindness combined with ridiculous predictions based on…no recent data…making everything related to Covid-19 “inconclusive”. Covid-19 is the most inconclusive, data elusive yet deadly “thing” that has caused a large percentage of people to check their brains in at the door.

  4. Does the whining ever end? No one, I mean no one, knows the true infection population because not everyone is tested. Only those who fear, are curious, or are symptomatic are testing. There are more people not testing but may or may not be infected. Therefore, no one can know the actual levels infection or the hospitalization or death rate. Period.

    Also, it’s a FACT that you’ll be listed as a Covid death, if you test positive, even if you’re asymptotic but died because you had terminal cancer. The bottom line is the data is worthless.

    How many people get tested for the, let’s call it the normal flu, because they are curious, fearful or even have flu-like symptoms? Not many. How many people are walking around with a flu virus but are asymptotic? I bet it’s a very big number. But since the population isn’t tested for the flu virus like people getting tested for the Corona-19 virus, comparative data is worthless.

    Finally, I’ve heard from the same set of so-called “expert” clowns shifting and contradictory guidance. Which means they don’t know anything either because the data is worthless.

    Here’s what do know. A virus can make sick. And it could kill you if you’re unhealthy to begin with, don’t manage recovery, or for some, draw the short straw. So, wear a mask in public, but driving around in your Prius, alone, with the windows rolled up, and with a mask on, makes you look like a moron.

  5. In these comments we see the partisan motivation that has been in large part responsible for making the USA the world leader in Covid-19 infections and deaths. Like the anti-vaxxer movement, this latest attack on science has bred a crowd of American science “skeptics” by bringing the same old anti-science argument: “If we don’t know everything, we know nothing.” This doubt campaign does not have to prove a conspiracy to destroy effective action against the epidemic. To keep the disease multiplying among us, it need only justify doubt in people’s minds to encourage their resistance to mask wearing and social distancing.

    We could cut the impact of this disease drastically if all of us would be a little more careful. Too many people won’t, though, because they saw on a website somewhere that doing so makes them sheep or liberals (see “Prius” comment above) or socialists or whatever dog whistle is bouncing around in their echo chamber.

    • When some “scientist” explains to me why drinking liquor with a meal increases the risk of infection, I’ll be all ears.

      Until then, I won’t hold my breath. But I’ll keep wearing my (likely utterly ineffective) mask. Does that make me “a partisan?”

      I may be an agnostic, but I can read the First Amendment. Apparently, many of our governors cannot. Cuomo just got schooled. He won’t be the last.

      • Agree 110%. This thing has been so horribly politicized and out of control, nothing is real anymore. And the idiots who buy into all the politically-motivated but draconian “mitigation” nonsense become part of the problem. There’s a reason good COVID data has never been available – it would show the public how exaggerated the reaction has been, and weaken the intended political impact.

        And OBTW – “partisan” is not a 4-letter word. The disingenuous left wrote the BOOK on “partisan”, and it’s perfectly OK to fight fire with fire, ESPECIALLY when there’s no common ground.

  6. As a Cargo Pilot, I say, “To each their own”.. Flying domestic or international, during the lamest of lame pandemics is NOT a major threat.. It’s a major challenge jumping through all the country specific protocol hoops.. We have pilots who have contracted COVID, and all will eventually return to flying.. No COVID related deaths.. We have had far more pilots out during an active flu season..

    The world is not going to travel by car, trains or ships from now on.. Air travel will return in time.. Guaranteed…!!!