(CNN) — Countries around the Asia-Pacific region have closed borders and imposed strict quarantine requirements, essentially sealing themselves off from the world.
But in many jurisdictions there’s a key exception to those rules: flight crews.
For months, flight crews in a number of places — including Taiwan and Australia — have been able to avoid the tough quarantine rules imposed on other international travelers. But rule breaches by airline staff in both places in December have prompted questions about whether exemptions for aviation workers are creating an unnecessary risk to the public.
But it’s a tricky predicament. While health experts say that treating flight crews differently is a loophole in an otherwise tough border approach, aviation industry officials say exemptions are needed to keep the industry operating — and avoid jeopardizing flight crews’ mental health.
What happened in Australia and Taiwan?
When Taiwan reported its first locally-transmitted case in more than 250 days on December 22, authorities quickly pin-pointed a foreign pilot as the source of infection.
Other places — including Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australia — also gave flight crews an exemption to their otherwise tough border policies.
Australia’s rules differed state by state, but previously, Australia-based flight crews flying into New South Wales were allowed to quarantine at home rather than in the state-run hotel quarantine facilities, while international crews were required to quarantine in one of around 25 hotels until their next flight, although they were not monitored by authorities like other international travelers.
It was strict by international standards, but still much more relaxed than what other incoming travelers faced — two weeks in a state-run hotel quarantine at their own cost.
Why flight crews are treated differently
Even with the tightened restrictions in Australia and Taiwan, flight crews still get different treatment from other travelers. And in a number of jurisdictions, many crew still don’t have to quarantine at all.
Albert Tjoeng, a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines, said crew were different from regular travelers — they are making repeated trips, they aren’t waiting to get out of quarantine to achieve the aim of their trip, and they are well informed about the risks and requirements. “(The aircrew are) acutely aware of the vulnerability of their livelihoods to any lapses in infection control,” Tjoeng said.
The exemptions were also out of concern for crews’ mental health. Unlike regular travelers who might be just making one trip home this year to see their family, flight crews would be making international flights often. That meant they could spend entire weeks or months effectively in quarantine.
That’s been the case for a China Airlines captain based in Taiwan who estimates that he has spent around 50 days in quarantine this year. He flies between Taipei and Sydney about once a month, and each time he’s required to quarantine for three days on each end.
The captain, who asked to be anonymous as he is not permitted to speak with media, says he has coped with quarantine, but that it is a concern for both mental health, and for people being able to be with their family and look after their kids. The days he spends in quarantine are unpaid.
“I don’t think the whole society, or the company, or even the (Taiwanese) CDC really care about our mental health, they only care about the public health, they don’t really care about this part of us,” he said.
Should the quarantine rules be tightened?
Health experts argue that the exemptions create a potential loophole for coronavirus to creep in to places that have been otherwise successful at keeping it out.
Hong Kong, New Zealand, Taiwan and Australia have all been otherwise relatively successful at containing their outbreaks, in part thanks to the tough border policies.
But IATA has called on governments to give flight crews who don’t interact with the public an exemption from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains can continue. Back in March, the association’s general director and chief executive said delays to global supply chains “are endangering lives.”
IATA’s Tjoeng said that strict requirements “certainly make it difficult for aircrew operating into those destinations.”
ICAO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, has also called on governments to exclude crew members of cargo flights from quarantine.
For the China Airlines pilot, he understands that Taiwan needed to extend quarantine to make the public feel comfortable. But he wants the rules to be consistent.
“They don’t want us into the public or into society, they don’t want us to infect others. But it seems like if I infect colleagues, it’s OK,” he said.