Cathay Pacific slashing passenger flights to Hong Kong over holiday season

Cathay Pacific is cutting back on both long- and short-haul passenger flights to Hong Kong next month to adjust for a looming staffing shortage over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

About a third of all inbound flights to the city in December will be converted to handle mostly cargo, the Post has learned.

Outbound flights are expected to continue operating as normal, with about 620 scheduled for next month.

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“Operational and travel restrictions that remain in place continue to constrain our ability to operate flights,” a company spokeswoman said on Thursday, referring to the city’s ongoing anti-coronavirus pandemic measures.

“We are consolidating our passenger flight schedules for December 2021, including cancelling a number of flights to Hong Kong.”

Given the city’s tough quarantine restrictions, Cathay Pacific passenger flights into Hong Kong are currently staffed on a volunteer basis. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

The airline does not have enough aircrew for so-called “closed loop” operations, meaning volunteer staff are needed for flying in and out of the city.

During the three-week shifts, they are confined to their hotel rooms between flights, then must quarantine for up to 14 days after returning home.

The airline said it was rebooking affected customers onto other airlines or routing them through airports where it would still be operating in December to ensure they could maintain their same-day arrival for hotel quarantine bookings.

Travellers flying into Hong Kong need a confirmed hotel booking for either 14 or 21 days, and the city’s 11,500 rooms are consistently sold out months in advance, making last-minute changes very difficult.

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Shukor Yusof, of aviation advisory firm Endau Analytics, said Cathay’s cutback on flights during the festive season could prove to be a “blessing in disguise” instead.

“Given the rise in cases in Europe, and Hong Kong’s determination to be Covid-free, Cathay will be in a better position in 2022 as its health and operational discipline get the better of the competition,” he said.

Cathay’s anticipated cutback on flights, particularly from continental Europe, comes as Covid-19 rates are once again soaring there, with the unvaccinated bearing the brunt of the impact.

The airline’s staffing woes also come in the wake of tightening of rules for aircrews exempted from quarantine after three pilots breached company protocol in Frankfurt by leaving their hotel rooms. The trio subsequently lost their jobs.

The event, which saw 150 Cathay staff quarantined at the government’s isolation camp in Penny’s Bay, sparked wider discontent over how the government has treated aircrew and growing reluctance by staff to operate higher-risk flights.

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As of Thursday, the airline’s flight schedule data indicates about 620 outbound flights for sale in December, but only 430 of them returning to Hong Kong. The latter number does not take into account possible cancellations.

Cathay operated 3,856 flights to Hong Kong in December 2019 and 453 in the same month last year, data from aviation analytics firm Cirium showed.

The cutbacks are another blow to Cathay’s attempts to recover from the pandemic, as it continues to lag behind global peers.

Hong Kong has seen almost no local infections in months under its tough zero-Covid strategy, but its mandatory 21 days’ hotel quarantine requirement for those returning from many destinations means the city is effectively shut off from the outside, even as the rest of the world has begun reopening.

Tougher quarantine regime for Cathay Pacific aircrew puts Hong Kong flights at risk

The quarantine policy, which affects both travellers and aircrew, is one of the strictest in the world, and is aimed at preventing imported cases from slipping into the community and jeopardising chances of fully reopening the border with mainland China – Hong Kong’s largest economic partner.

A HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) government-led bailout, the axing of 5,900 jobs, closure of Cathay Dragon, and its daily passenger volume plunging 99 per cent from 100,000 people per day marked some of the lowest points of the airline’s pandemic-ravaged experience.

Cathay remains propped up by robust air cargo activity and cost savings, which have helped push it “close to” breaking even between July and October.

The airline said it expected to still report a “substantial” loss for 2021, despite an improvement in its fortunes across the second half of this year.

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