Cathay Pacific suffers pilot exodus amid Hong Kong’s ‘permanent quarantine’

Cathay has been operating with passenger capacity at 93% below pre-pandemic levels as a result of Hong Kong’s zero-Covid-19 policy

Cathay Pacific passenger aircraft pictured at Hong Kong International Airport last year. Photograph: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Cathay Pacific passenger aircraft pictured at Hong Kong International Airport last year. Photograph: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

 

When a Cathay Pacific cargo pilot was named in December as one of the first carriers of Omicron in Hong Kong, it was a fitting end to another bleak year for the airline.

Cathay has been operating with passenger capacity at 93 per cent below pre-pandemic levels as a result of Hong Kong’s zero-Covid-19 policy, with weeks of quarantine for pilots and crew devastating morale.

Strict quarantine measures in the city were made even tougher after the Omicron coronavirus variant prompted new travel curbs. Non-residents from more than 90 countries were banned from entry and passengers from the UK and the US were subjected to 21 days’ quarantine.

Cathay pilots told the Financial Times that dozens had quit in the weeks since November following a high-profile quarantine fiasco. That month, three pilots who had tested positive for coronavirus in Hong Kong were sacked after they left their hotel rooms and breached quarantine rules during a layover in Frankfurt.

Because of the positive cases, 130 Cathay pilots who had stayed at the same hotel were forced to enter 21 days of isolation in the government-run Penny’s Bay quarantine centre, nestled beside Hong Kong Disneyland.

Most 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 one pilot who has been with the company for more than 15 years and was part of the Frankfurt saga.

“It feels like we are permanently in quarantine. There are a lot of pilots at the moment who are on long-term stress leave or sick leave.” Cathay pilots and crew have to undergo up to two weeks of quarantine if they land in the city.

Pilot exodus

The pilot has moved up about 270 places in the airline seniority list as a result of the exodus from the airline, whose largest shareholder is the Swire Group, the former British colonial trading house that is now one of Hong Kong’s biggest conglomerates.

Cathay’s troubles predate the pandemic. In August 2019, the airline was put under heavy pressure by Beijing after its staff participated in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Two years later, Cathay’s chief financial officer Rebecca Sharpe said that the airline was continuing to go through the “toughest period in our history”.

Speaking in a December earnings call, the company’s chief customer and commercial officer Ronald Lam warned that even if mainland China opened up a travel corridor with Hong Kong, that route represented just 7 per cent of the airline’s available seat kilometres, a measure of carrying capacity to generate revenue.

“Other international hubs in the region are starting to recover, while Hong Kong in some respects is going in the opposite direction,” said Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst and consultant based in Singapore.

Cathay’s regional rivals such as Singapore Airlines have seen passenger capacity pick up to 32 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels as of November.

The zero-Covid policy was steadily eroding Hong Kong’s status as one of Asia’s largest aviation hubs, said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the US-based aerospace consulting company Teal Group.

The “real, long-term dangers” to Hong Kong’s aviation industry were the loss of talent and wealth, said Aboulafia. He said that would “diminish the city’s standing... and lead to the likely departure of businesses”.

A Cathay spokesperson said the company had “fully acknowledged” the quarantine rules were placing a burden on their air crew. While admitting that 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 in the coming year”, adding that “there has been significant interest within the Hong Kong pilot community and around the world”.

But the Cathay pilot who was forced into quarantine at Penny’s Bay last month was sceptical the company could attract new people. “I can see the rest of the world carrying on, but I can’t see Hong Kong opening up,” he said. “It’s not going to get any better.” - Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021