How United Airlines Deals With Pilots Who Get Coronavirus

Filed Under: United

Obviously there are lots of risks and challenges associated with traveling nowadays. I’m not just talking about the health risks of coronavirus, but also the potential complications in the event that you test positive for coronavirus while away from home.

Passengers absolutely aren’t supposed to fly in the event they have coronavirus (even though a man recently died of coronavirus on a United flight), but the same isn’t true for pilots.

Airline employees have coronavirus concerns

Understandably airlines want to reassure employees that they’ll be taken care of in the event that they get coronavirus while working. This is especially true outside the US, where rules might be different than back home.

This has been a big point of contention between management and unions at some airlines. For example, early in the pandemic we saw some pilots and flight attendants refuse to work flights with COVID-19 testing requirements on arrival.

They far preferred being tested before departure rather than on arrival, because the concern was what would happen if they tested negative before departure but positive after arrival? Would they have to be hospitalized in a foreign country? Would they have to quarantine for a full two weeks?

I can appreciate the concern in general, especially since employees don’t have much control over their schedules.

Pilots understandably have concerns about getting coronavirus

What happens when United pilots get coronavirus?

Skift has the fascinating details of a five page memo that outlines what happens in the event that a United Airlines pilot is outside the US for work, and either tests positive for coronavirus, or starts showing symptoms.

United’s policy for this situation isn’t exactly what I would have expected — I would assume they’d have quarantine no matter what, but instead pilots will be flown home, and medical treatment abroad will be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

United’s policy applies to pilots who test positive for coronavirus, show symptoms of coronavirus, and/or report close contact for at least 15 minutes with someone who tests positive for coronavirus.

Those pilots are told to get in touch with Medaire, which is a company that provides health guidance to airlines, as well as with United’s chief pilots office. The pilots should quarantine in their hotel room for the duration of their time at the destination.

An effort will then be made to get the crew member home on the next flight that doesn’t have passengers on it. With airlines operating lots of cargo-only flights nowadays, this isn’t as outlandish as it would have previously sounded. However, this isn’t possible if pilots are in a country that doesn’t allow those with coronavirus to fly.

If the pilot can get on a flight without passengers, there are specific guidelines that need to be followed:

  • The crew members working the flight are supposed to wear N95 masks while the pilot boards the airplane
  • All crew members should stay at least six feet from the infected pilot throughout the flight
  • The pilot should either sit in the very back of economy on a narrow body jet, or in the very back of business class on a wide body jet
  • The pilot can’t go to the front of the airplane except in an emergency
  • The pilot will get a designated lavatory and can get food from the galley, but that galley won’t be used by other crew members; the pilot will have to serve themselves, and will be asked to disinfect the area
  • Once at the destination, the pilot should be the last person off the plane

Sick pilots are instructed to sit in the very back of business class

Bottom line

It’s cool to get an inside look at how exactly an airline deals with an employee who is stuck abroad with coronavirus. I can appreciate how this is a general concern that pilots have.

While I would have never guessed that this is the process of repatriating pilots stuck abroad, I guess it makes sense. If a pilot is healthy enough to get home then putting them on a flight without passengers and with lots of precautions seems like the best option.

What do you make of United’s process for bringing sick pilots home?

  1. I think pretty much every country will have quarantine rules after testing positive, as they would also have to get to and be in the airport, increasing risk to others. So I think in most cases these pilots weren’t be going anywhere.

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