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 inbound flights to the city operating under the airline’s “closed loop” arrangement in December will be converted to handle mostly cargo, the Post has learned. Mainland China and Australia flights are unaffected as they do not operate under the closed-loop system.
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.”
The airline does not have enough aircrew for its 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 with 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.
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”.
“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 a tightening of rules for aircrews exempted from quarantine after three pilots breached company protocol in Frankfurt by leaving their hotel rooms and subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus after returning to Hong Kong. The trio later lost their jobs.
The infections, which led to 150 Cathay staff being quarantined at the government’s isolation camp in Penny’s Bay, sparked wider discontent over how the administration had treated aircrew and growing reluctance by staff to operate higher-risk flights.
As of Thursday, the airline’s flight schedule data indicated about 620 outbound flights for sale in December, but with 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.
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 the mainland – Hong Kong’s largest economic partner.
Local airlines from midnight on Thursday must ensure staff undergo seven days of strict mandatory medical surveillance upon returning to the city, with aircrew required to isolate at home for the first three days and not participate in group gatherings after that.
The government and Cathay Pacific earlier agreed to the strict rules, which have since been extended to all carriers based in the city.
Since the pandemic began, Cathay has seen a HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) government-led bailout, the axing of 5,900 jobs, the closure of its regional sister airline and a plunge in daily passenger volume of around 99 per cent.
Cathay remains propped up by robust air cargo activity and cost-saving measures, which have helped push it “close to” breaking even between July and October, according to a recent report.
The airline said it still expected to report a “substantial” loss for 2021, despite an improvement in its fortunes across the second half of this year.
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