The flight crews at one of Taiwan's main airline carriers have voiced frustration about continued COVID-19 policies that require them to adhere to some of the strictest quarantine and testing requirements in the world.
The policies remain in place even as other parts of the world loosen pandemic restrictions and adapt to a “new normal.”
Upon arrival at destinations overseas, pilots and cabin crews from China Airlines must be taken directly to their hotel rooms and provided with room key cards that work only once — when they leave and embark on their next flights.
One pilot for China Airlines, who wished to remain anonymous, told VOA he was “frustrated” with the current conditions.
“It’s really affected [me]. Whenever I went to work, I felt so frustrated ... it means I can’t go home for a period of time, and [I’m] also very tired, because I need to continuously [go] back and forth to Taipei and the U.S. or Europe. So, I have to adjust myself, try to sleep more and be more positive. [Being] stuck in a tiny room for long is really uncomfortable, but I still have to get used to it," he said.
The first officer has worked for the airline for nearly eight years, and he flies both long- and short-haul trips each month. He said the restrictions were worse in the beginning of the pandemic, as pilots were forced to wear goggles, gloves and face masks while on duty, as well as facing quarantine for seven days. And because of the quick turnaround of a pilot flying both domestically and internationally, the pilot described how he was in a constant loop of being quarantined.
“There [was] a period of time we couldn’t quarantine at home, only in the hotel, so I’ve been 22 days and [still can’t] go home,” he said.
Today, the rules for vaccinated flight crews have since been relaxed slightly, removing the necessity of home quarantine in Taiwan. But when pilots and crews go abroad, they are still restricted from leaving their hotel rooms.
“At out stations, we still can’t go out. We only [can] stay in the room, until our pickup time for the next flight. It’s really unhealthy, [I] watch TV, read and sleep all day. I’ll do some workouts, too, and order Uber Eats, but that’s it,” the pilot added, referring to the food delivery service provided by Uber.
A local pilots union in Taiwan is now seeking the loosening of some restrictions.
The Pilots Union Taoyuan, which represents nearly half of all pilots working for Taiwan's airlines, has called the measures "outdated" and is requesting that the Taiwan government ease the strict controls.
The head of the union, Lee Hsin-yen, referred to an in-house survey that found most of the member pilots who have had the coronavirus caught it in Taiwan, the news website Focus Taiwan reported.
VOA has requested a comment from the Civil Aeronautics Administration in Taiwan but has not yet received a reply.
Cabin crews also have vented their discontent about the rules and said following the restrictions is like being in prison.
A woman calling herself Shirley, who didn’t want to be identified, is a cabin crew member at China Airlines and said she has worked there for nearly seven years.
“The rules are: We are not allowed to leave our room; crews got one-time-use key card, or [the] hotel monitors us via [closed-circuit television] to make sure there's no crew [leaving] their room. And we're also not allow to have any contact with locals,” she told VOA.
She said that in pre-pandemic times, cabin crew members would often go shopping, have coffee or enjoy the summertime when overseas.
“That's how crew members [would] release their stress,” she said.
Today, with the prolonged restrictions, she said, the flight crews in Taiwan are being treated unfairly in comparison to those in the rest of the world.
“In the beginning of the COVID, all these rules seemed to make sense. Nowadays, more and more countries open their borders. It feels like we [are] behind bars when we are in another country, because we can't go anywhere. When we have [a] layover flight, the only place we can go is on the plane and hotel room. And it seems like the lockdown is endless,” she said.
As the rest of the world is returning to pre-pandemic travel norms, Taiwan is currently closed to overseas tourists. Only residents and business travelers can enter Taiwan, but they must quarantine for three nights, followed by four days in self-health control. This means they are prohibited from visiting public venues or meeting groups of people.
It is an example of how concerns about the infection still linger in East Asia, with parts of the region slow to reopen travel to the world. The trend seems to be gradually changing, as Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan have all opened their respective borders recently for visitors, each with specific measures in place.
Gary Bowerman, an Asia travel analyst, told VOA that Taiwan’s cautious approach is soon going to affect its goals to boost tourism.
“Taiwan is talking about a phased reopening beginning with tour groups from Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea. This is a cautious strategy, which some Southeast Asian countries tried initially. As Southeast Asian countries discovered over the past year, it is only when full border reopenings are activated, and pre-flight and on-arrival testing and restrictions are removed, that travelers gain the confidence to visit in larger numbers,” he said.
With a population of more than 23 million, despite keeping infections low at the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan is now reporting upward of 25,000 domestic cases daily. Vaccination numbers are high, with 85% of the population inoculated, according to the website Our World in Data.