COVID-19: Safeguarding the Profession's Present and Future

By Christopher Freeze, Senior Aviation Technical Writer

Approximately two months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Shortly thereafter, numerous countries began to announce and implement travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. Confronted with unprecedented challenges to the airline industry as a result of COVID-19, ALPA continues to work around-the-clock providing available resources and creating new ones to meet the needs of its members.

“During these difficult times, it’s crucial that we continue to keep safety as our number one priority,” said Capt. Bob Fox, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, who is spearheading the Association’s COVID-19 efforts. “For those flying the line, we must all be extra vigilant in minimizing potential distractions on the flight deck. With all the stress and uncertainty surrounding our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to let those external pressures creep onto the flight deck.”

In response, the pilot volunteers of the Association’s Air Safety Organization (ASO) have been working to provide fellow pilots updated information and added support during these uncertain times.

Pilot Assistance: ALPA’s true measure

“One critical tool for ALPA members is the Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program,” said F/O John Taylor (United), ALPA’s ASO Pilot Assistance chair. “PPS is operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week by pilot peers who offer confidential assistance as you sort through whatever you might be experiencing during these challenging times in the way of psychological, physiological, chronic stress, or family issues—without jeopardy to your career.”

PPS volunteers can be reached at 309-PPS-ALPA (309-777-2572). Independent group-specific support programs are also available:

  • Delta PAN: 800-USA-ALPA
  • FedEx PATH: 866-FDX-ALPA
  • JetBlue PAN/PPS: 309-PPS-ALPA
  • United Airlines SOAR: 866-653-SOAR
  • Canadian Pilot Assistance (visit your master executive website).

Pilot Assistance has also coordinated with ALPA’s Membership Committee to launch a Family Issues webpage. “The site contains information and expert guidance from the Pilot Assistance Committee, including suggested resources and other applicable guidance on various family issues,” noted Taylor.

The Association also engaged with the FAA to extend the duration of pilot medical certificates. “The FAA recently issued an enforcement policy letter stating that it won’t take enforcement action against an airline pilot or flight engineer for flying in domestic operations with an expired medical certificate,” said Taylor. “This policy is effective March 31, 2020, through June 30, 2020.”

For international operations, the exemption only applies to medical certificates that expire between March 31, 2020, and May 31, 2020, and extends the validity of these medical certificates until June 30, 2020. “But the exemption requires that airlines must confirm with each pilot that he or she agrees to the exemption,” noted Taylor. “The airline must provide the FAA with a list of those pilots, and the exemption only applies to Part 121 international operations. Additionally, pilots and flight engineers must have in their physical possession, or readily accessible in the aircraft, a copy of this grant of exemption when exercising the relief provided.”

Transport Canada also recently issued an extension allowing pilots who currently hold a medical certificate expiring on or before June 1 to continue to exercise the privileges of their permits, licenses, or ratings until Aug. 1, 2020, subject to the conditions listed in the exemption notice dated March 17, 2020.

Security: Hardening our target

While most of the world is focusing its attention on the pandemic, those flying the line still need to remain vigilant and keep security at the forefront. “Pilots remain part of what has been deemed a critical infrastructure industry as defined by the Department of Homeland Security,” said Capt. Wolfgang Koch (Delta), ALPA’s ASO Aviation Security chair, in a recent Security Alert. “As such, we’re being tasked with continuing to provide transportation services throughout the pandemic, for as long as needed, and we also expect to be a key component of the recovery.”

During these challenging times, Koch noted, it’s important that pilots continue to be vigilant in all areas of operations as it pertains to security. “While we’re likely to encounter an increasingly stressful work environment contrasted with reduced passenger loads, a variety of threats still remain. We all must continue to remain focused on the mission at hand and remain on the lookout for any irregularities or threats.”

He recommended that pilots continue to practice strict flight deck door opening and closing procedures. “Reduced passenger loads on board our aircraft shouldn’t be dismissed as being a lower risk,” Koch stated. “We should be reminded of the events of 9/11 where terrorists took command of our aircraft when load factors weren’t as high as recent times. Crews should endeavor to maintain strict adherence to both the display and checking of airline identification material, including the verification of crew, airport, company, and government IDs, and remember to always challenge aviation workers who don’t display their proper credentials while on or around your aircraft.”

In closing, Koch observed that during these trying times pilots not only need to be focused on their fitness for duty and well-being but also on their coworkers. “If you observe any behavior or actions by a coworker that you consider to be troubling or concerning, please know that additional support is available” through ALPA’s PPS network and through immediate managers at respective airlines.

Jumpseat: Vital to the profession’s success

“The ability to jumpseat has reached critical mass for ALPA pilots forced to contend with drastically reduced airline flight capacity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” remarked Capt. Rich Odbert (FedEx Express), ALPA’s ASO Aviation Jumpseat chair. “A large portion of ALPA members are commuters, making it vital that pilots have jumpseat access to ensure baseline operation levels are maintained while this crisis continues.”

Odbert noted that the Aviation Jumpseat group is working closely with individual master executive councils (MECs) to help pilots affected by furloughs and, in some cases, airline shutdowns. The group is providing special resources to pilot group Jumpseat Committees to assist with the temporary extension of jumpseat agreement privileges (cabin seat only) to affected crewmembers.

To facilitate jumpseat access on other carriers, “the Aviation Jumpseat group reminds ALPA members that all airline jumpseat policies are now available in the ALPA mobile app,” Odbert stated. “Within the Jumpseat Information section of the app, MEC-specific blocks provide autopopulated, up-to-date information to help you plan your commute and other jumpseat travel needs. This recent enhancement is an ALPA presidential priority, and an important planning tool for pilots tasked with flying during these difficult times.”

Safety: Diligence through rough times

In an ASO Safety Bulletin issued in March, Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), ALPA’s ASO Aviation Safety chair, provided a solemn reminder to members: “In these uncertain times, we have many outside stressors that threaten to compromise our flight deck performance. It’s been proven that distracting discussions about the latest breaking news, contract talks, furloughs, and bankruptcies can lead to unsafe airplane states and/or loss of situational awareness.”

He stressed that pilots must mitigate this risk of distractions when flying daily, “but with the continuous barrage of threatening news to our health and financial situations, it becomes even more important to be on the lookout for the precursors to a reduced level of safety.” Jangelis noted that although it’s important that crewmembers communicate with each other and check on the well-being of fellow pilots, many of these conversations are best saved for when pilots are away from the airplane to preserve the appropriate cockpit environment throughout the flight. “Pilots are reminded to stay vigilant, follow your standard operating procedures, and always remain focused on the task at hand.

“The safety of our operations is still the number one priority through this rapidly changing environment,” Jangelis observed.

This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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