Coronavirus: Cathay Pacific tells aircrew quarantine could start in two weeks, as airline industry chiefs urge rethink over damage it could do

Danny Lee
·5-min read

Airline industry chiefs have urged the Hong Kong government to rethink its plans to quarantine aircrew for 14 days, as Cathay Pacific Airways told staff the rule could start after February 11.

In a brief memo to employees on Wednesday night, Chris Kempis, the airline’s director of flight operations, said Cathay was waiting for confirmation on when the new measures would take effect.

“Rest assured we will update you with the full details as soon as we are able to,” Kempis said. “This is also the reason why we have not been able to produce a roster beyond February 11.”

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While officials have yet to announce finalised plans, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed grave concern over the damage the measure could inflict.

This gives me confidence that we will get through this exceptionally difficult part in our history

Chris Kempis, Cathay director of flight operations

The association called for the government to treat Hong Kong-based aircrew as essential workers and make them a “top priority” for Covid-19 vaccinations.

“We are a bit worried about this potential new measure for the crew in Hong Kong and particularly because the Hong Kong aviation sector is already fragile,” said Alexandre de Juniac, the IATA’s CEO and director general.

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The global airline body said the measure would reduce flights – especially those carrying valuable and essential goods such as vaccines – when they were critical to combat the coronavirus pandemic and support the economy.

“Just don’t do it,” said Subhas Menon, director general of the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines. “Airline operations are not very viable, this will make it even less viable.”

Menon, whose group represents the region’s major airlines, excluding those in mainland China, added: “The government will have to give some consideration to travel and tourism when they come up with policies, otherwise travel and tourism will be collateral damage in their pursuit of eliminating the virus.”

Cathay Pacific said on Wednesday it would raise more capital in the face of increased cash burn from the proposed new rules on quarantining aircrew, which would significantly affect its operations. The carrier could raise at least HK$6 billion (US$774 million) on top of the HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) it raised last year, which included a significant contribution from the government to save it from collapse.

A fortnight of quarantine would cost the airline between HK$300 million (US$39 million) and HK$400 million a month, and force it to cut flight capacity by 60 per cent and cargo capacity by 25 per cent, the company said on Monday. The airline burns between HK$1 billion (US$129 million) and HK$1.5 billion a month at present.

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The carrier had asked for a two-week delay on implementing the rules to mitigate the impact on its flights, a source familiar with the situation said. The airline was seeking volunteers to fly for three weeks and then go into quarantine.

Cathay also told staff in the memo it was encouraged by the number of pilots willing to fly and then be quarantined.

“This gives me confidence that we will get through this exceptionally difficult part in our history and be ready to adapt to the ‘new normal’ we should anticipate in the wake of the pandemic,” Kempis said.

The Post has been told local crew can leave quarantine at any time to fly again if they are part of the same staff operating the previous flight, but when they return, the quarantine clock would reset to 14 days.

The government has said the new restrictions are necessary as it tried to reach zero infections in the city. Photo: Nora Tam
The government has said the new restrictions are necessary as it tried to reach zero infections in the city. Photo: Nora Tam

Justifying its stricter measures on aircrew, the government said the move was part of an effort to reach zero infections. However, there have been no known imported cases involving crews that have not been detected at the border, nor have they been responsible for any known community transmissions.

“There are viral mutations in Europe and other parts of the world,” Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, who advises the government on the pandemic, told the Post. “All four waves so far have been due to imported viruses. The government wants to close any loopholes.”

Hong Kong has some of the strictest rules for passengers and crew in the world. Travellers are subject to 21 days mandatory hotel quarantine and must take three Covid-19 tests: one on arrival and two while in quarantine.

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Passengers coming from one of 18 “very high-risk” countries such as the United States and India must also produce a negative test result before flying.

Aircrew are screened upon arrival and must stay in a hotel for 24 hours while they wait for their result.

Foreign crews must isolate in hotel rooms throughout their stay and take a test before they fly.

For Cathay, at least, local crews are monitored for any possible symptoms after their flight lands overseas and must not leave their hotel room while waiting to take off again.

Separately, arriving aircrew who have been to Britain, Ireland, Brazil or South Africa in the past 21 days must quarantine upon arrival in Hong Kong for the same amount of time.

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