Travellers scrambling to return to Hong Kong before new quarantine measures hit arrivals from popular study-abroad destinations have bought all available tickets and sent prices for seats on later flights through the roof.
By Monday afternoon, no tickets were available for flights arriving from London before Thursday, when the Hong Kong government planned to impose a 14-day quarantine period on all arrivals from Britain, Ireland and the United States, searches by the Post found.
That situation had eased slightly hours later, as Cathay Pacific Airways moved to reinstate some previously cancelled flights.
The quarantine measures were intended to battle the spread of the coronavirus in the city, which had recorded 148 infections and four related deaths through Monday.
At 1pm, a one-way economy ticket on Cathay Pacific from London’s Heathrow Airport, which normally costs less than HK$10,000 (US$1,290), was going for more than HK$43,000, according to the airline’s website, even though the earliest take-off available was on March 26, which would miss the quarantine cut-off by a week.
A ticket on a Virgin Atlantic flight leaving on Sunday was going for more than HK$55,000, while a British Airways direct flight at HK$37,000 was snapped up.
Travellers willing to do a stopover or two could still book a flight for Tuesday. The shortest, at about 14 hours, involved flying with British Airways and Cathay Pacific with a transfer in France, and cost about HK$15,000 on Monday afternoon. Cheaper options, with more stopovers, would take up to 30 hours.
Shortly after noon, Cathay Pacific announced that to cope with the demand it would add back three flights which were cut earlier. “We stand ready to assist. In view of the strong demand, we have reinstated three CX256 flights from London Heathrow to Hong Kong departing on March 18, 19 and 20, respectively,” a spokesman said.
The airline previously said it would also bring back one flight shaved off earlier on March 19, and add five extra flights between March 17 and 21 every day.
On Sunday, Hong Kong officials issued red travel alerts for the US, Britain and Ireland, and said they would impose a 14-day quarantine period on all arrivals from the three countries and Egypt from Thursday, in a bid to halt a rise in imported infections.
Compulsory home quarantine would apply to everyone, including Hong Kong residents, prompting those away from home, including many students, to scramble for a ticket before the situation worsens overseas.
America and Britain are traditionally popular locations for parents to send their children for education, as well as Canada and Australia, which the Hong Kong government was yet to place any restrictions on.
For the United States, the price of a return ticket in economy class from various cities direct to Hong Kong had risen to between HK$37,000 and HK$52,000, although a local travel agent said flights from Chicago, New York and San Francisco were all full.
However, for those who did not mind stopovers, there were flights for about HK$4,000 to HK$6,000.
There have been more than 168,000 coronavirus cases around the world and Monday marked the first time there were more infections outside China than in it. The number of confirmed cases in America had risen to more than 3,600, while Britain had recorded almost 1,400.
Student Cyril Ching Wie-ip, who studies sociology at the University of Bristol in England, got his hands on a ticket before prices went up, though he will return after the new quarantine measures take hold.
The 20-year-old, who paid about HK$5,000 for a one-way Emirates ticket to fly home on Saturday, decided to return because his classes terminate on Wednesday and, like many, he had reservations about the way in which Britain was tackling the virus.
Karolina, the mother of a student at Tufts University in Massachusetts, forked out HK$31,000 for a one-way ticket for her 20-year-old son.
“It’s ridiculous,” said the 48-year-old, who asked to be referred to by her first name. “The normal price is about HK$15,500 for a return flight.”
Her son is in self-quarantine until Sunday, after attending a party with a student who had contracted the coronavirus. He will then travel to Chicago, where he will catch his flight home.
“We were scrambling. The idea is to get him out of the US as soon as possible before it gets difficult to leave,” Karolina said.
Angus Tang Chi-wing, director of the HKIES Overseas Education Centre, said he had received dozens of inquiries from concerned parents and students, especially those in high school, saying they wanted to return to Hong Kong before the coming Easter break.
But Tang warned it could affect some students’ visas, as some countries, including Britain, had yet to officially announce class suspensions.
“If the school approves the absence of students, then it will not affect the visa,” he said.
Additional reporting by Karen Zhang