Omicron variant: Cathay Pacific cancels 23 more Hong Kong flights, as airlines brace for tougher Covid-19 rules

Cathay Pacific has cancelled a third of its Friday flights amid the fallout over Hong Kong’s planned tightening of aircrew rules to prevent the Omicron coronavirus variant seeping into the community.

According to live flight data, 23 Cathay services had been axed out of the 67 scheduled to depart Hong Kong International Airport, as of 1.30pm. None of its cargo flights were affected.

On Thursday, the Hong Kong flag carrier withdrew 28 out of 61 planned passenger flights and five out of 15 cargo-only services.

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The wave of cancellations follows the government moving a host of countries into the highest-risk Group A category for inbound travel in response to fears over Omicron, the potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first detected in southern Africa. Travellers and aircrew arriving from those places must undergo 21 and 14 days of quarantine on arrival respectively.

Singapore could be the next destination to be elevated into the high-risk category after the detection of two preliminary-positive Omicron cases there on Thursday.

The short-term cancellations come on top of the airline’s intention to this month cancel up to a third of its closed-loop inbound flights and return the aircraft to Hong Kong only loaded with cargo.

It is understood that most of the passengers affected by Thursday and Friday’s cancellations were shifted onto other same-day flights.

Hong Kong’s Cathay axes passenger, cargo flights in latest contingency bid

The government is planning more stringent restrictions for local aircrew, but is yet to make an announcement.

However, the decision to impose tougher curbs on inbound travel is pushing airlines into taking pre-emptive action to stop crews suddenly being quarantined, which would render them unable to operate flights for up to a fortnight.

The airline’s closed-loop system involves crew volunteering to work on the highest-risk flights. They work continuously for three weeks then do a fortnight of hotel quarantine on their return to the city.

But Cathay does not have enough volunteer pilots to operate such flights now that dozens of countries are in the high-risk category, affecting 32 cities that Cathay serves.

What do we know about the new coronavirus variant, and should Hong Kong be worried?

Hong Kong on Friday confirmed three new Covid-19 cases, all imported and involving a mutated strain of the coronavirus, taking the official tally to 12,448 cases, with 213 related deaths. The three cases came from South Korea, the United States and Japan.

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