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Cargo Flights in a COVID-19 World

December 06, 2020 07:30 | Anonymous

Sunrise over Mt. Rainer

By Mark Antonenko

When I started flying Beech 1900’s for Great Lakes Airlines back in 1998, I was filled with excitement as I embarked on what has been an amazing journey. After flying for Great Lakes, I was hired by Air Wisconsin, where I flew DO-328 turboprops and the CRJ-200, performing check airman duties on both. In 2005, I realized my dream of flying for a major carrier when UPS called. I worked as a flight engineer on the now retired DC-8, and then moved on to the Boeing 757/767 a year later. I have been flying internationally on the Boeing 767 ever since, circumnavigating the globe for close to 15 years now. Two years ago, I upgraded to Captain on this beautiful aircraft. 

Flying internationally is a pilot’s dream. At UPS, we operate into the busiest airports in the world. Airports such as Paris, Shanghai, Singapore, Narita, and Hong Kong, not to mention the very busy U.S. major hubs. We fly mostly during the night, but also during the busy day times, sharing the busiest times with our passenger carrying colleagues. Being a major carrier, UPS puts us up in beautiful hotels around the world, normally in downtown areas where we are free to explore local restaurants and sights during our layovers. I have had the privilege of seeing many sights around the world, including the 16 hectare Narita-san Temple in Japan, watching the Hanshin Tigers play baseball in Osaka, Japan, the Night Safari in Singapore. I’ve played golf in Penang, Malaysia, shopped in various markets in Qingdao, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, China. I’ve seen incredibly beautiful churches in numerous European cities, as well as museums such as El De Haus, the SS Headquarters in WWII, in Cologne, Germany, and the Duxford Imperial War Museum just outside of Stansted, England. Once, due to a lightning strike on our aircraft, we were “stuck” in Venice, Italy for a weekend, while the aircraft was repaired. The whole time, my Captain and I were wishing our wives were with us!

While the layovers have been cool, it is not always vacation time. The demands of international freight flying does have its challenges. As we normally fly at times opposite to our passenger flying colleagues, rest can be challenging. UPS and the Independent Pilots Association, our pilot union, have worked hard to help minimize hotel disruptions that prevent us from getting adequate rest. Efforts have also been made in the construction of schedules to allow for rested crews. Continuing qualification training includes quarterly home studies and annual simulator training events. Internationally, we face the challenges of busy Atlantic and Pacific crossings. Atlantic crossings are more challenging, as we normally fly random routes, as opposed to flying organized tracks that you may ride on with carriers like Delta or United. Weather can be a challenge too, such as Midwest thunderstorms, typhoons in the Pacific, fog, and high winds. Flying some of the best equipment in the skies makes meeting these challenges very manageable. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the aviation industry was turned on its head. The changes to our profession due to the pandemic has been a sequence of challenges unprecedented in our industry. Around the world, traffic congestion at the major airports ground to a halt. My last trip with inter-Asia flying was amazing. Airports normally busy and bustling with airplanes and passengers became boneyards. In Asia, Singapore, Incheon, and Narita had billions of dollars of equipment in storage: A-380’s, A-350’s, Boeing 747’s, 787’s, 767’s, and more. Taxiways and ramps were filled to capacity. Here in the U.S. the Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Chicago-O’Hare airports became boneyards for Delta, American, and United. 

As the passenger demand waned or was taken away by government mandates, normally busy Air Traffic Control sectors became eerily quiet. Complicated Standard Terminal Arrival Routes (STAR), despite being planned for, ended up with controllers clearing us direct to Initial Approach Fixes (IAF) for approaches. Cargo went from being a vibrant but smaller part of most areas to being the only game in town. In the North Atlantic, we usually see five or six organized tracks to manage the numerous flights crossing from North America to Europe and back again. Through the end of the summer, that number was down to one track!

For myself and other UPS pilots, the biggest challenges have been the changes to rules and regulations for entry into different countries, and even different states here at home. In addition to entry rules, there are new restrictions to  what we can do on layovers. Something as simple as grabbing dinner has become a huge challenge. For example, on a recent layover in Anchorage, AK, many downtown restaurants were either closed or only open for take out. Room service in the hotels is usually a reliable option. However, being on a night freight sleeping schedule, those options are often limited and exorbitantly priced. Local governments, especially China and Hong Kong, are mandating COVID-19 testing either prior to or upon arrival and, regardless of the test being negative, now mandate that we remain within our rooms for the duration of our layovers. Considering some of our layovers last several days, cabin fever is a real concern. Regulatory rule changes now require UPS to publish updates to our airport briefing guides daily, causing enormous workloads for our flight control folks as well as crews. Fortunately, we use electronic flight kits so info is easily transmitted, versus the days of old when paper revisions were the only option. Even with the diligence of our flight department, there have been instances of rule changes happening literally during flights. The companies only become aware of these changes after one of their crews experiences them upon arrival. As a result, we are asked to update our electronic flight kits daily, during our flights. 

While the pandemic has had an incredible impact on the airline industry, those of us flying the empty skies still enjoy what we do, despite the ever-changing environment in which we are working. I consider myself blessed to be flying for UPS, as we and our friends at FedEx and other cargo companies have plenty of flying to do and continue to grow. My thoughts are definitely with my passenger flying colleagues, however, who are looking at massive layoffs once federal aid dries up. My hope for them is a speedy recovery and minimal furloughs as we emerge from these challenging times! As for us, we will continue to navigate these crazy headwinds and do our part to aid in the recovery from the pandemic. 

Captain Antonenko in front of his Boeing 767 aircraft

Mark Antonenko is a Boeing 757/767 Captain with UPS Airlines. He is based in Louisville, KY, but lives in Grand Forks, ND.

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