One Year Later: Honoring the Airline Industry’s First Pandemic Frontline Workers

With the airline industry’s global scope, pilots often witness history in the making and sometimes even take an active role. For the pilots of Kalitta Air, it is often another day’s work. Members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) since 2018, these pilots have recently been honored for their extraordinary, global efforts at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On January 28, 2020, four Kalitta Air pilots answered a call to evacuate fellow Americans from Wuhan, China, where the pandemic was already in full swing. Because of a complete lockdown of the country, many Americans were stranded. Within 24 hours of receiving the call from coordinating government officials, the all-cargo carrier had retrofitted two B-747s for passengers, kickstarting multiple federally funded evacuations involving U.S. and Canadian citizens, along with those from other impacted nations.

Despite knowing the dangers, Kalitta Air pilots stepped up to the responsibility of aiding in the U.S. State Department relief response. For weeks, Kalitta pilots ferried U.S. government personnel and private citizens from all across the globe as country after country went into full lockdown to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Remembering the events leading up to the evacuation flights, Capt. Michael Intfen, vice chair of the Kalitta Air ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC), recalled: “I was boarding a flight to Los Angeles to sit reserve when Scheduling called. They rerouted me with a ticket direct to Incheon to meet our plane…Where we had a B-747 with a massive amount of plastic sealing off the flight deck, and our next stop was Wuhan to pick up American passengers."

In addition to regularly scheduled flights—including Hong Kong; Shanghai, China; and other Asian destinations—Kalitta Air pilots also embarked on an extensive schedule of ad hoc flights as part of a rush to transport masks, ventilators, and other needed medical supplies, efforts that continue to this day.

One year after the first flights out of Wuhan, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) recognized Kalitta Air pilots for their contributions to the emergency evacuations.

“I’d like to thank all of the dedicated pilots at Kalitta Air for going above and beyond the call of duty during this unprecedented crisis, from evacuating Americans across the world to ensuring that N95s ventilators and—now—vaccines are efficiently distributed,” said Sen. Peters in a video statement to the pilots. “Your contributions have been critical to care professionals, frontline workers, and hard-hit families in Michigan and throughout the nation. Your efforts to help our communities combat this devastating disease have added another chapter to Kalitta Air’s proud tradition of service.”

“The pilots of Kalitta Air represent the best of American workers supporting their fellow Americans. All of Michigan and all of America is proud of their work, and we are collectively thankful for your service, your caring, and your being there,” said Congresswoman Dingell, also via video.

Watch Sen. Peters | Watch Rep. Dingell

When the world needs help on the frontlines of a global disaster, ALPA pilots will do our part to ensure that the world keeps moving, from evacuation flights to the efficient delivery of critical supplies and equipment and everything in between.

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