United has an intricate plan to repatriate COVID-positive pilots

Dec 22, 2020

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One of the many concerns of COVID-era travel is the possibility of testing positive for the novel coronavirus while on a trip.

For travelers, that would mean a two-week (or longer) quarantine in a hotel or government-sponsored facility, with limited access to medical care.

For United pilots, however, the outcome wouldn’t be nearly as inconvenient.

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The Chicago-based airline has promised it will repatriate any of its pilots who test positive while on an international work assignment, according to an internal memo viewed by Skift.

This detailed, five-page plan includes a rundown of the procedures, starting after an infected (or potentially infected) pilot contacts both the chief pilot’s office and Medaire, a company that provides medical, security and travel support to airlines.

According to the memo, pilots are instructed to reach out after testing positive, developing symptoms or reporting close contact for at least 15 minutes with someone who has tested positive.

Then, headquarters will work with the potentially infected pilot on extraction procedures. In the meantime, the pilot must quarantine-in-place until the extraction plans are confirmed.

In most cases, the potentially infected pilot will be flown home on a dedicated charter or other non-revenue flight — passenger flights are off-limits, according to the memo and Skift report.

Once on the airplane, all crew must don an N95 mask and ensure social distancing throughout the flight.

The potentially infected crew must sit in coach on a single-aisle jet, or in the rear-most Polaris pod on twin-aisle planes — and cannot go to the front of the plane, except during an emergency.

The person must also use a dedicated lavatory and galley to prepare food and dispose of trash. After using the galley, the pilot is instructed to sanitize and disinfect any of the potentially contaminated areas.

Upon arrival, the pilot should be the last person off the plane.

It’s unclear if the extraction procedures apply to potentially infected flight attendants as well. The airline declined to comment on the Skift report, but both American and Delta confirmed that they have similar plans in place.

United’s extraction plan seems designed to boost crew members’ confidence in flying during the pandemic. Should a pilot test positive during a work assignment, he or she might fear being separated from family with limited access to medical care, or worse.

Along the same lines, U.S. airlines have been busy adjusting their Shanghai flights to accommodate crew concerned about layover procedures during the trip. Both Delta and United have added a stop in Seoul for a crew change, ensure that none of the carriers’ crews have to disembark in China and face extremely strict quarantine measures.

“Because of the quarantine restrictions, we don’t want any of our crew members to stay in China,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian back in May.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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