Pilots under pressure: keeping your job is a challenge for locals and foreigners alike

The Novotel hotel at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport will no longer provide accommodation to foreign pilots after an outbreak of COVID-19, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, Friday, April 30.

Health and Welfare Minister and Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) director Chen Shih-chung said that the most likely source for the infection was a foreign pilot, and that foreign pilots have “divergent” behaviors, being less likely to follow instructions for epidemic prevention.

Four of 10 CAL pilots who tested positive for COVID-19 were found to be infected with the same variant as a housekeeping manager who continued working at the Novotel hotel after developing “respiratory symptoms,” Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) reported the following day, May 1.

The Taiwanese housekeeping manager had seen three doctors after developing symptoms on April 17, but continued to work for 10 days before he was hospitalized with pneumonia on April 27, CNA reported.

During that time, three of the CAL pilots who tested positive had stayed at the hotel, and the housekeeping manager had been delivering items to the guest rooms and assisting with checking in and out, the report said.

On April 29, all of the hotel’s staff and guests were transferred to government quarantine centers by order of the CECC.

However, the focus of the danger remained on “foreign pilots” in reports on Sunday, May 2.

“Personnel of the epidemic prevention hotel should treat pilots as suspected of being diagnosed, especially foreign pilots,” said an “infection expert” quoted in ET Today.

Deputy Director of the Infection Control Center at China Medical University Hospital, Huang Gaobin (黃高彬 / Kao-Pin Hwang), said that foreign pilots had “looser daily hygiene habits and less awareness of epidemic prevention” than domestic pilots, and should be treated as suspected confirmed cases.

Taiwanese pilot: Yangmingshan Quarantine Center is like a prison

One of 109 CAL flight crew sent to the Yangmingshan Quarantine Center complained that the conditions, and treatment of residents made it feel like a prison, United Daily News reported Sunday, May 2.

The quarantine center, housed in the Bank of Taiwan dormitory, is dirty, and furnished with rudimentary equipment, the pilot, who is unnamed in media reports, said.

The quarantine center is said to have been disinfected, but in fact, there is hair, and mouse and cockroach droppings on the floor, he said, showing pictures he had taken.

dirty floor with rodent, cockroach droppings and human hair
Dirty floor of “disinfected” dormitory room in Yangmingshan Quarantine Center.

If conditions are bad, the treatment of “inmates” is even worse.

The CAL employees were suddenly relocated to the quarantine center after the CECC directive was issued April 29, shutting down the Novotel airport hotel and ordering the more than 400 residents and staff to undergo a 14 day quarantine in government quarantine facilities.

There was no time to prepare even basic daily necessities, the pilot said.

While family members are allowed to bring supplies to the residents, they are only allowed to twice per day, at 10:00 am and 3:00 pm. This makes it difficult to fit in with normal work and school schedules, he said.

Furthermore, everything must be inspected by staff, and certain objects such as extension chords, razors, nail clippers, or other sharp objects are not allowed, just like a prison, the pilot said.

The regulations are basically the same as for prisoners, he said. Are they afraid crew members will commit suicide? Everyone here is normal and healthy, physically and mentally. If someone does actually commit suicide today, it will because of the quarantine conditions.

The fact that even personal items delivered by family members have to be checked by quarantine personnel seriously violates privacy and human rights, the pilot argued. We are living in the quarantine dormitory for epidemic prevention, not because we have committed crimes. What rights do these quarantine personnel have to search our personal belongings?

A bunch of rules are stipulated such as no smoking or drinking, and external delivery services for food, such as Food Panda, and Uber Eats are not allowed.

printed rules for residents of a quarantine center in Taiwan.
Rules and regulations for quarantine center inmates

The residents of the quarantine center are woken up every day at 7:00 am by a loudspeaker announcement telling everybody to get up and have breakfast. They really manage the center as a prison, the pilot said.

The pilot likened the situation to Nazis putting Jews into concentration camps or the Chinese Communist Party putting people into reeducation camps. We have the same level of cooperation, but Taiwan is a democratic country, and the government should not be like them, he said.

Expat pilot speaks to Taiwan English News

On the same day the local Chinese language press reported the Taiwanese pilot’s experience of quarantine conditions, a Taiwan-based foreign pilot reached out to Taiwan English News.

“I would like to reveal the truth behind pilot treatment, and possible infection cases, and how they are being treated here in Taiwan. It is a very sensitive topic, and I could risk deportation…,” he wrote.

The pilot was concerned about keeping his job, and supporting his family, which is quite understandable considering the massive impact that pandemic restrictions have had on the aviation industry.

“Devastation – this is the only word to describe the impact of the pandemic on pilot jobs in Europe,” says Otjan de Bruijn, president of the European Cockpit Association (ECA), the representative body of the European pilot associations, Euro News reported in February, 2021.

“We have seen crises before – the 2008 economic downturn, 9/11. We are used to the ‘volatile’ nature of the industry. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden, deep shock, and sadly – a steep unemployment curve among European pilots,” de Bruijn told Euro News.

“Around 18,000 pilot jobs in Europe are already gone or are on the brink of disappearance, out of a total of 65,000, according to ECA estimates,” the Euro News report said.

The pilot speaking to Taiwan English News described a now more than one-year-long cycle of work followed by quarantine, followed by work, followed by quarantine, then a period of “self-health-management,” followed by work.

Along with this schedule comes separation from family, social isolation, confinement in small cabin-like rooms with cots for a bed, and being forced to eat food that someone else decided you will eat.

“In some countries you can call for food delivery, such as Uber Eats, for example. But in Taiwan you have to eat whatever the quarantine hotel brings you.”

Lunch provided for pilot in quarantine hotel. Exploded squid on bed of rice with unidentifiable vegetable. People (used to) joke about airline food…

After you arrive in your quarantine room, you are not allowed out, the pilot told Taiwan English News.

“At first they would lock us in, but soon realized this was a human rights and safety issue. Now they just have a camera monitoring the door to make sure you only open it when the personnel brings you your meals.”

Unlike the rudimentary, but large, bright, naturally-ventilated rooms of the Yangmingshan Quarantine Center featured in the United Daily News story, and described by the Taiwanese pilot as a “prison camp,” our Taiwan English News‘ source furnished pictures of a cabin-sized space with a smaller-than-single-sized bed, more like a cot.

Cabin-sized room used to quarantine pilots in Taiwan
Current restrictions confine pilots to a three-day stay in rooms like this, and only allowed to open the door when meals arrive. And this is after restrictions were recently “relaxed” from five days of confinement.

The space in which the pilot must spend a 3-day quarantine period is two steps wide, and six steps long, and has a small window that cannot be opened.

Once released from quarantine, the pilot then enters the “self health management” period, during which, with every movement tracked via mobile devices, he is allowed to ride in designated “epidemic taxis,” but must wear a mask at all times outside of his home, is not permitted to use public transport, go to shopping malls, cinemas, or other places where large numbers of people gather, and can only go into restaurants to order take away food, and not linger (i.e. eat in the restaurant).

The constant quarantine, self health management, and work schedule made it difficult to meet with family or friends, the pilot said, noting that he had only spent one week with his wife in the last eight months, and noting that one of his colleagues had missed the birth of his first child.

It takes a mental toll.

Long-haul flights wearing full-body condoms

Working on long-haul flights means, in our pilot’s case, 15 hours dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE): a head to toe disposable single-use plastic overall, and surgical masks and gloves. The outfit must be worn at all times throughout the flight. It’s very uncomfortable.

The pilot pondered why doctors working every day in the frontline of possible, and even confirmed COVID cases, wearing the same personal protection equipment can go home to their families, while pilots must go into quarantine after every flight.

Just as physicians are entrusted with the lives of their patients, pilots are also entrusted to protect the lives of hundreds of people at a time. An aircraft pilot must maintain a mental acuity that allows them to make split-second decisions in any case of any emergency.

Government authorities making rules that govern our lives, including those of airline pilots should take these issues into consideration.

Medical authorities are making decrees that people in other professions have to be quarantined, while people in their own profession can go about their daily lives after coming into contact with potentially, or actually infected patients.

The rules and regulations made by these medical authorities may affect the safety and well-being of people in situations that medical experts are not qualified to speak.

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2 thoughts on “Pilots under pressure: keeping your job is a challenge for locals and foreigners alike

  • May 3, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    It is incredible how pilots are targeted/treated, even after we follow all the restrictions put in place by our company…people seem uninterested in how our lives being impacted.

  • May 3, 2021 at 1:58 pm

    Furthermore, people should be made aware of the pilots and cabin crew that have been let go because of violating covid-19 prevention measures…they would stop blaming the expats, as the majority are locals


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