Air Cargo Flights: Coronavirus Health Guidelines for Flight Crews

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KTUU (Anchorage) -- Air cargo flights between the Ted Stevens International Airport and China are continuing, despite the public health emergency surrounding the new, or "novel" coronavirus that's spreading out of Wuhan.

Hundreds of cargo flights come and go from Anchorage weekly, and flights to and from Asia, including China, make up a large part of that air traffic.

More than one in four cargo planes landing in Anchorage originate from China, according to 2019 data from the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.

Airport managers told 2 Investigates that nearly half of the some 235 arriving cargo flights in the last week came from Asia, with 13 of them from China.

To help protect the crews that fly those planes, the FAA and the CDC have issued guidelines to air carriers to help manage exposure risks. UPS is among the carriers with Anchorage-to-China routes that has implemented safety precautions.

"When the crews arrive back in the United States, of course, we would expect them to comply with any procedure that's mandated by authorities. At present, we're not aware of any specific crew checks that are required. We are asking our employees to self-monitor and to report any conditions that they may be experiencing, and if necessary obtain a physical examination to be cleared for work," Steven Gaut, a spokesperson for UPS told KTUU Wednesday.

The company is also providing masks and hand sanitizer to crews operating in China, and is requiring crew members to wash their hands regularly. Gaut said UPS has also adopted practices recommended from the FAA and CDC that ask crews to travel as a group, take private transportation between the airport and hotels, keep their distance -- at least six feet -- from members of the general public, and avoid crowds.

CDC guidelines for self-monitoring for symptoms include taking a temperature twice daily, and to immediately report to their employer any fever, coughs or breathing problems, in addition to seeking medical care.

Planes and vendors are also getting extra attention.

"When our planes arrive back in Anchorage, or any of the other international gatewways, we've set up special cleaning crews that ensure that we do a deep cleaning on those aircraft. We're also limiting access to the flight deck. And we've established standards for our vendors and instructions for their employees to ensure that they're also following the same sorts of procedures that we've established for our own employees," Gaut said.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and airport managers directed KTUU to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta for answers on what screening and protocols, if any, are in place for air cargo crews present in Alaska who travel to or from China. The CDC has not returned an email inquiry sent Tuesday evening. Follow-up calls placed throughout the day Wednesday confirmed the CDC was aware of our questions. As of Wednesday evening the CDC had not provided a response.

UPS's Gaut told KTUU air cargo traffic is down, due in part to the business impact of the virus, and observation of the Chinese New Year. Last weekend one of its Shanghai-bound humanitarian flights stopped in Anchroage en route. Gaut said the plane was carrying 2 million respirator masks, 11,000 protective suits and more than 28,000 pairs of medical gloves for health care workers.

Meanwhile, Gaut said the company had on Wednesday signed an agreement with its pilots to allow pilots concerned about travel to China to opt out of an assigned flight by taking sick or vacation time. The opt out policy will take effect in three days, Gaut said.