American pilots and other airline employees should move close to the front of the line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once the highest risk groups like healthcare workers have been immunized according to a group of aviation unions and trade bodies. In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the group said prioritizing pilots will help to ensure the vaccines can be distributed without delay.
On Thursday, a panel of experts gave the green for the Pfizer / BionTech vaccine to be approved and the Federal Drug Administration is expected to grant the eagerly anticipated jab an emergency authorization use within days. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is part of the CDC, has recommended that healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities be the first to get the vaccine once it’s approved.
The ACIP is due to meet again once a vaccine has won approval to decide what other groups will be on the priority list for inoculation. “Given the scientific, implementation and ethical considerations, we ask that you prioritize these frontline aviation workers in the next phase of vaccine allocation,” a joint letter from 17 airline industry groups urged the CDC.
The signatories of the letter include trade body Airlines 4 America which represents major U.S. carriers like American, Delta and United Airlines, as well as Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines. The ALPA pilots union also joined the calls for airline workers to get priority access.
The industry argues airline employees should be treated as critical infrastructure workers who will be called upon to ensure the rapid distribution of vaccine supplies across the United States and further afield. Unlike other workers, airline workers can rarely adhere to social distancing regulations because of the nature of their jobs.
Joseph DePete, president of the ALPA union warned there had been an “alarming increase in Covid-19 exposure and infections” amongst cargo pilots just as the industry was gearing up for the “mission of the century”. Delta experienced a meltdown over the Thanksgiving weekend due to pilot sickness linked to COVID-19.
“Ensuring this prioritization (of the vaccine to pilots) will allow the logistical component of transporting the vaccine to continue unencumbered,” DePete argued.
Even after the FDA approves a COVID-19 vaccine, pilots won’t initially be eligible to receive the jab if they want to continue flying. “The FAA currently considers use of a COVID vaccine by pilots medically disqualifying,” the ALPA union cautioned on Thursday.
“The ALPA Aeromedical office has been working closely with the FAA, and we expect an announcement of a new policy shortly after the first vaccine receives an EUA,” a statement from the union continued.
The FAA says it will “expedite its review of the emergency-use authorisations” once a vaccine has been cleared for use by the FDA. At present, “no final decision” has been made on whether pilots will be medically disqualified if they receive the jab. It’s possible that pilots will be grounded for two to three days after receiving the vaccine (the Pfizer candidate requires two jabs).
One of Canada’s largest trade unions has already called on the Canadian government to give flight attendants priority access to vaccines as become available and some crew at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways have already been immunized using a vaccine by Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.