Cathay Pacific cargo, passenger capacity to be slashed following Hong Kong’s imposition of new flight bans, rules for aircrew

·4-min read

Cathay Pacific Airways’ cargo capacity will be reduced by more than two-thirds and its existing passenger flights by about 80 per cent following Hong Kong’s recent imposition of a two-week flight ban on certain countries and tightened aircrew quarantine requirements.

In an internal memo to staff, obtained by the Post on Thursday, the airline’s chief executive said it had previously been operating at about 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic cargo capacity and running around 10 per cent of passenger flights. From Friday, those figures were expected to drop to around 20 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.

The latest arrangements are expected to deal yet another blow to the airline battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and to Hong Kong’s reputation as a global aviation hub.

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“I realise these substantial reductions in our passenger and cargo capacity will have a significant impact on our customers and on our people,” CEO Augustus Tang Kin-wing said in the memo.

In a statement, Cathay confirmed capacity would be sharply reduced for the rest of the month as it emerged from a week-long, self-imposed suspension of all long-haul cargo flights that began on December 30.

That suspension came after authorities began requiring all returning aircrew – some of whom had previously been allowed to self-isolate at home – to undergo quarantine at designated hotels for at least seven days.

On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced a ban on passenger flights from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and the United States until January 21, starting on Saturday. Travellers who were recently in those countries or transited through them will also be barred from returning to the city for two weeks.

The new measures were part of authorities’ tough response to a local coronavirus outbreak involving the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has triggered a massive ramping-up of social-distancing restrictions and contact tracing.

A growing number of the local cases are linked to a Cathay flight attendant who violated home isolation rules while carrying the Omicron variant. He was one of four Cathay employees determined by authorities to have flouted the internal regulations. The airline subsequently fired two of the employees.

On Wednesday, the chief executive said the government was studying possible legal grounds for holding Cathay responsible for the current outbreak.

The new restrictions on aircrew reflect Hong Kong’s determination to stick to its long-held zero-Covid strategy, in line with mainland China, in hopes of achieving its goal of resuming quarantine-free cross-border travel.

For the past two years, Cathay has been hamstrung by the pandemic, racking up at least HK$29.2 billion (US$3.75 billion) in losses and shedding thousands of employees.

The airline carried 135,350 tonnes of cargo in November alone, with most of it passing through Hong Kong, accounting for almost 30 per cent of the city’s total air freight.

And with international travel still depressed, cargo has come to form the lion’s share of Cathay’s business, generating 80 per cent of its revenue – or HK$12.7 billion – in the first six months of last year.

Hong Kong consumers set to take hit from Cathay cargo flight suspension

Independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said cargo had been an essential lifeline for Cathay, and if the reduction in capacity continued beyond the short term, it could have an impact on both the airline and the Hong Kong supply chain.

The reduction could also widen the growing gap between Hong Kong and other aviation hubs in the region, he added.

“Hong Kong has already fallen behind other hubs, because other hubs are now starting to recover, while Hong Kong hasn’t really started that process yet. In fact, it is now going in the opposite direction,” he said.

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