FEATURE/Stuck in work-quarantine cycle, flight crews hope for reprieve

04/26/2022 04:05 PM
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Cargo planes at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. CNA file photo
Cargo planes at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport. CNA file photo

By Chiang Yi-ching, CNA staff reporter

On a recent rare day off, Taiwanese pilot C.C. Chen (陳建財) decided to engage in what he described as a "novel experience": he took a ride on the New Taipei subway system.

Whether taking public transportation, eating out with friends, or getting a dental checkup, the most mundane of activities for Taiwan residents have been almost unthinkable for crew members of Taiwanese airlines such as Chen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Facing unmatched quarantine requirements, they have been stuck in a numbing, unremitting cycle of work and quarantine for more than two years that has completely disrupted their lives and left them feeling isolated.

Now, however, as the world gradually phases out COVID-19 restrictions, crew members are calling for more humane schedules and the use of testing to replace quarantine measures.

A Vicious Cycle

Quarantine requirements for crew members of domestic airlines have been in place since March 2020, according to Lee Hsin-yen (李信燕), the head of the Pilots Union Taoyuan and a pilot since 2009 at EVA Airways, one of Taiwan's two major carriers.

They have generally involved quarantine periods of three to seven days, unlike the standard 14 days for most people who enter Taiwan, followed by seven to 11 days of "self-health management" at home, Lee told CNA in a recent interview.

Crew members' time in quarantine can be cut short, however, if they have another assignment, Lee said.

It is a formula that has enabled local airlines to maintain normal operations and meet soaring air cargo demand, helping both EVA and Taiwan's other major international airline, China Airlines, turn a profit in 2021.

Yet because flight crew members have long been considered the main vulnerability in Taiwan's COVID-19 prevention strategy focused on keeping the coronavirus away from the island, protocols related to their movements have been enforced with particular rigidity and violators have been turned into pariahs by local media.

Huge Sacrifices

No matter where they are, crew members have had little personal freedom.

Overseas, Lee said, they are taken directly to their hotels upon arrival and handed a room card that can only be used once, ensuring that they cannot leave before they are supposed to.

For their return trip, they are taken directly to the airport, and after arriving in Taiwan, they head back to a quarantine facility, Lee said, living in a perpetual "tour of quarantine hotels."

Flight attendants, who have more time off because of the drop in passenger travel, can at least get home under the looser "self-health management" protocols.

But pilots have had no such luck, being pressed more frequently into service to deal with soaring air cargo demand amid staffing shortages as more of their colleagues take leaves of absence or retire to cope with the stress.

Lee, whose union represents close to 50 percent of all pilots working for domestic airlines, said she has seen schedules requiring pilots to do nothing other than work or stay in quarantine for up to 25 consecutive days.

In February, only about 20 to 30 percent of pilots who worked long-haul flights were able to meet the union's call for "three days of freedom" from work, quarantine, or self-health management rules per month, depriving them of the chance to see their loved ones, Lee said.

Not surprisingly, in a survey of 826 pilots conducted by the Pilots Union Taoyuan in November 2021, 87 percent reported feeling under more strain than usual, and 90 percent said they felt more unhappy or depressed.

One of China Airlines
One of China Airlines' 18 Boeing 747-400 cargo planes. The Taiwanese carrier posted all-time high cargo revenue of NT$124.5 billion (US$4.25 billion) in 2021. CNA file photo

Devastating Effects

"The sense of loneliness that each of us feels has grown more and more severe," said C.C. Chen, who has been with China Airlines for over 16 years and serves as deputy chairman of the Pilots Union Taoyuan.

"When I go home, I honestly don't really know how to go out, and when I meet people, I don't really know how to say hello to them, because we're so used to being alone," Chen said.

"We're gradually losing our ability to communicate with others. I have felt this very deeply."

Chen said he decided to apply to take off the month of December to spend more time with his children, who had pleaded with him to spend more time at home.

Once, when he was in quarantine, one of his children ran away after having an argument with his wife, Chen said. "I can't describe how I felt, being alone in that room. I couldn't do anything."

Even the looser "self-health management" protocols, which allow people to live at home, have not helped because they bar people from dining out, attending social gatherings, or staying in hotels, significantly limiting what crew members can do with their families or friends.

During more strictly controlled periods, crew members under self-health management have even had to report their every movement outside their home to health authorities, resulting in some feeling as though they are under surveillance.

A video released by the Pilots Union Taoyuan in December on situations their members face because of their tight work schedule

Medical Needs

In addition, getting medical care has been a near impossibility, even under self-health management protocols, which also prohibit people from going to hospitals or clinics unless for an "emergency."

That has resulted in postponed checkups, exacerbating health issues, Lee said, citing the example of a crew member who was diagnosed with cancer much later than she should have been because her routine screening was delayed.

Although the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) has ordered certain government hospitals to treat crew members in emergency rooms, the needs of those with chronic health issues or who want to be with other ailing family members still are not being met, according to Lee.

Tiger Chao (趙婕歡), who has worked as a flight attendant at EVA Airways for 11 years, said that when her five-year-old son got sick while she was in a self-health management phase, she could not take him to see a doctor because she could not enter the clinic.

"It breaks your heart, seeing how your child is clearly feeling unwell, but you can't take them to the doctor's," she said.

Chao is also feeling the toll of the unforgiving routine and restrictions.

"Sometimes I really want to go to work, because going to work is the only time I'm legally allowed to have face-to-face contact with people," she said. "It's like being chained by invisible shackles."

Yellow ribbons are seen on several windows of the Novotel airport hotel owned by China Airlines on Oct. 28, 2021, when the Pilots Union Taoyuan organized a protest against the tight work schedule endured by their members at three quarantine hotels for flight crew in Taoyuan. CNA file photo
Yellow ribbons are seen on several windows of the Novotel airport hotel owned by China Airlines on Oct. 28, 2021, when the Pilots Union Taoyuan organized a protest against the tight work schedule endured by their members at three quarantine hotels for flight crew in Taoyuan. CNA file photo

Contradictory Policies?

Compounding their dismay are the inconsistencies in quarantine rules. Pilots Lee and Chen found it unreasonable, for example, that they can interact with their co-workers but cannot go home, even if they test negative for COVID-19.

Yet politicians and foreign guests who visit Taiwan and the people they meet on their trips do not have to quarantine, nor do airport personnel, who come into contact with COVID-19 patients each day.

Lee hoped crew members could forgo quarantine requirements altogether in the future, or at least have more leeway to quarantine at home, she said.

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) has offered some hope, saying recently that the CECC would consider replacing quarantines with more testing for airline crew members, though he did not give a definite timeline.

In the meantime, both EVA Airways and China Airlines said in statements that they have rolled out measures to support the physical and mental health of crew members, such as free phone counseling services and virtual fitness classes, while also adjusting crew members' work schedules to better fit their needs.

While Chen, the China Airlines pilot, accepted that the company supported his physical and mental health, he believed the burden has remained on pilots themselves to deal with the situation.

"We go to counseling and we feel better in the moment, but after that you still have to face your life. If the situation hasn't changed, the counseling ends up being for nothing....You still have to go to work," he said.

Enditem/ls

Update

May 7: Quarantine cut to 7 days for mild, asymptomatic COVID-19 cases: CECC

May 7: Taiwan rolls back quarantine rules for contacts of COVID-19 patients

May 5: Rapid test positives to be counted as confirmed COVID cases from May 12

May 3: Taiwan to shorten quarantine for arriving travelers from 10 to 7 days

April 27: Taiwan to start rationing sale of COVID-19 rapid test kits

April 27: Taiwan relaxes quarantine rules for airline crew members

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