Cathay Pacific has fired three cargo pilots who were infected with Covid-19 in Frankfurt after an internal investigation by the Hong Kong carrier found the trio were involved in an unspecified “serious breach” of crew requirements while overseas.
In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Hong Kong’s flagship airline did not reveal the breach but said the individuals concerned were “no longer employed” by it. However, a company source said the trio were suspected of leaving their hotel rooms in Germany.
“After investigation into these cases, regrettably, the findings indicate a serious breach of requirements during crew overseas layovers,” the statement said.
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In response to the findings and considering the “severity of the incident”, the government said it had told Cathay to ensure there was no recurrence of such events.
“The [Transport and Housing Bureau] is deeply regretful of and can hardly accept the concerned cargo crew’s non-compliance,” it said, while noting they were individual cases.
The three infections among the quarantine-exempt cargo pilots caused more than 150 Cathay staff to be quarantined. Many more close contacts were sent to a government isolation facility at Penny’s Bay.
More than 120 pupils at Discovery Bay International School, where the wife of one pilot teaches and two sons attend, were also quarantined. About 70 friends and colleagues of the first two pilots infected were put in isolation.
“We acknowledge the impact these incidents have had on all of our people, their families and the community, especially those who are now being quarantined at a government facility,” the airline said.
Two of the pilots, aged 29 and 57, were confirmed infected on November 10. They had claimed during an epidemiological investigation by health authorities that they did not leave their rooms during their stay in the German hotel and did not participate in any gatherings.
The third pilot, 53, had stayed in the same hotel and was confirmed infected on Sunday.
Under the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance, anyone knowingly providing false or misleading information, including on their whereabouts, contact with others or medical history, faces a maximum fine of HK$10,000 (US$1,280) and up to six months in prison.
The airline said it would ask the government to release some of its staff from quarantine as a result of concluding its investigation into how the pilots contracted Covid-19.
In the wake of the infections, Cathay and the government reviewed the protocol for exempted pilots, tightening supervision at home over the first seven days of their return from a trip.
The airline was at risk of losing its exemption privileges, further jeopardising its flight operations which are already struggling under the city’s tough Covid-19 quarantine policies.
Pilots who are exempt or do not leave the plane at their destination must not leave home except under exceptional circumstances, and have to take daily Covid-19 tests.
The airline and health officials initially responded to the cases by ordering all aircrew who stayed in Frankfurt since November 1 to be sent to quarantine. Cathay also sought to suspend stopovers in the German financial hub.
The airline on Wednesday said 104 flight crew, 46 cabin crew, one safety training employee and two ground workers were in the government’s quarantine facility at Penny’s Bay. And a “large number” of employees’ household members and community contacts had also been quarantined, it added.
Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Sui-cheong said airlines should be compliant with the rules while staying overseas and in the Asian financial hub to minimise the risk of importing cases to Hong Kong.
“This is the only way to ensure the airline industry can continue to function while HK is adopting zero-Covid policy,” Hui said.
Word of the pilots’ deceit sent shock waves through the aviation community.
“The three pilots should take all the blame. Hundreds of crew and families went to Penny’s Bay because of their misconduct,” one colleague said.
A senior aviation executive criticised the pilots involved and the management for poor oversight.
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