When a Cathay Pacific cargo pilot was named in December as one of Omicron’s first carriers to Hong Kong, it was the end of another grim year for the airline.
Cathay operated with passenger capacity 93% below pre-pandemic levels due to Hong Kong’s zero-Covid-19 policy, with weeks of quarantine for pilots and crew devastating morale.
Strict quarantine measures in the city have been made even stricter after the Omicron variant of the coronavirus prompted new travel restrictions. Non-residents of more than 90 countries have been barred from entry and passengers from the UK and US have been subjected to a 21-day quarantine.
Cathay’s pilots told the Financial Times dozens of them quit in the weeks after November following a high-profile quarantine fiasco. This month, three pilots who tested positive for the coronavirus in Hong Kong were sacked after leaving their hotel rooms and breaking quarantine rules during a layover in Frankfurt.
Due to the positive cases, 130 Cathay pilots who had stayed at the same hotel in Frankfurt were forced to spend 21 days in isolation in the government-run quarantine center at Penny’s Bay, nestled next to Hong Kong Disneyland.
Most of the pilots were released less than a week later after authorities reassessed the risk, but for many the draconian quarantine order represented a breaking point.
“The guys here are absolutely desperate,” said a pilot who has worked at the company for over 15 years and was part of the Frankfurt saga.
“We have the impression of being in quarantine all the time. There are a lot of pilots right now who are on long term stress leave or sick leave. Cathay’s pilots and crew face up to two weeks of quarantine if they land in the city.
The pilot has gained around 270 places in the airline’s seniority list due to the exodus of the airline, which is owned by the Swire Group, the British conglomerate from Hong Kong.
John Grant, a partner at UK consulting firm Midas Aviation, said Cathay faced a “long and difficult struggle”. He added: “Unfortunately [its recovery] is at the mercy of the authorities and decisions that are beyond their control.
Cathay’s problems predate the pandemic. In August 2019, the airline came under heavy pressure from Beijing after its staff participated in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Two years later, Cathay’s chief financial officer, Rebecca Sharpe, said the airline continued to go through “the most difficult period in our history.”
Speaking on an earnings conference call in December, the company’s chief customer and commercial director Ronald Lam warned that even if mainland China opened up a travel corridor with Hong Kong, that route only represented 7% of the airline’s available seat-kilometers, a measure of transport capacity. to generate income.
“Other international hubs in the region are starting to recover, while Hong Kong is in some ways moving in the opposite direction,” said Brendan Sobie, Singapore-based independent aviation analyst and consultant.
Cathay’s regional competitors, such as Singapore Airlines, have seen passenger capacity increase 32% from pre-pandemic levels in November.
The zero Covid policy was gradually eroding Hong Kong’s status as one of Asia’s largest aviation hubs, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analytics at U.S. aerospace consultancy Teal Group.
The “real and long-term dangers” to Hong Kong’s aviation industry were the loss of talent and wealth, Aboulafia said. He said it would “reduce the reputation of the city. . . and lead to probable departures of companies ”.
A spokesperson for Cathay said the company had “fully recognized” that the quarantine rules place a burden on their aircrew. While admitting sentiment had been ‘affected’ recently, he was unable to provide the number of pilot resignations over the past month.
He reiterated the company’s plans to employ “hundreds of pilots over the coming year,” adding that “there has been significant interest within the Hong Kong pilot community and in the world “.
But the Cathay pilot who was forced into quarantine at Penny’s Bay last month was skeptical that the company could attract new people. “I can see the rest of the world going on, but I can’t see Hong Kong opening up,” he said. “It’s not going to get better”