FedEx shuts down Hong Kong pilot base, blames Covid-19 policies that have left ‘no clear timeline’ for return to normal

·6-min read

FedEx, the global package delivery giant, has given up any hope of reopening its Hong Kong pilot base, blaming coronavirus policies that have left “no clear timeline” for when the city will return to normal.

In a company memo revealing that a January decision to move its pilots out of the city was now permanent, Robin Sebasco, FedEx’s system chief pilot, said the airline needed to “adjust” to the economic, regulatory and business environment worldwide.

Industry stakeholders said the move reflected the increasingly tough operating environment for businesses under the government’s strict quarantine policy, although the decision was seen as unlikely to affect FedEx’s flights in and out of the city, which are largely operated by pilots based in California.

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While Hong Kong has seen almost no local coronavirus infections for months under its zero-Covid strategy, mandatory 21 days’ hotel quarantine for those returning from many destinations means the city is effectively shut off from the outside, even as the rest of the world reopens.

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“The decision to close the Hong Kong base reflects this constant evolution and is designed to provide a measure of stability to these team members, as there is no clear timeline when life may return to normal in Hong Kong,” Sebasco said.

“Following this closure of the Hong Kong crew base, this flying will be primarily staffed by our Oakland-based pilots.”

FedEx at the start of the year relocated 180 pilots and their families from Hong Kong to California in response to tough aircrew quarantine measures.

The airline defended the move at the time, explaining: “This temporary relocation ensures pilots can see their families as soon as they finish a trip, not weeks afterwards. It also eliminates our Hong Kong-based crews being stuck in a repeated loop of self-isolation.”

FedEx flights into Hong Kong International Airport will continue, but with pilots based elsewhere. Photo: Shutterstock
FedEx flights into Hong Kong International Airport will continue, but with pilots based elsewhere. Photo: Shutterstock

Locally based aircrew are required to do up to 14 days of quarantine if vaccinated and 21 if not, and conduct closed-loop operations in which pilots fly for weeks non-stop before quarantining and returning to the community.

FedEx does not have enough manpower to sustain closed-loop operations such as those maintained by the city’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific.

“The global business environment continues to evolve, and with the pandemic requirements in Hong Kong, FedEx has made the decision to close its Hong Kong crew base and relocate its pilots,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman added: “FedEx will continue to maintain its operations in Hong Kong, which are vital to our Asia-Pacific and global network.

“We are fully engaged with government authorities to support our crew members and address Hong Kong’s entry and quarantine requirements. This decision will allow us to continue to staff our Hong Kong and Asia flights without being subject to Hong Kong entry restrictions.”

Cathay imposes stricter self-isolation rules for aircrew returning to Hong Kong

Rob Chipman, CEO of Asian Tigers Group, one of Hong Kong’s largest logistics service providers, said he hoped the action by FedEx, a US multinational with a presence in the city for many years, would send a signal to decision-makers.

“I hoped the shutdown of the pilot base will send a signal to the Hong Kong government over its zero-Covid policy, which should be adjusted according to the pandemic development even though it is a complicated issue that involves Beijing,” he said.

FedEx’s Asia-Pacific hub is located at Guangzhou Airport, but it also operates daily flights between Hong Kong and Paris, Taipei, Osaka, Liege and Memphis, Tennessee, where the company is headquartered.

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It also is a major shareholder in the Asia Airfreight Terminal at Hong Kong International Airport.

Hong Kong-based pilots frequently commuted to Guangzhou to operate cargo flights from FedEx’s regional hub.

Similarly, Cathay Pacific is mulling a contingency plan to relocate pilots outside the city for up to four months in a bid to work around the city’s tough quarantine restrictions.

The government recently moved to toughen up exemptions for local cargo pilots after three from Cathay were found to be infected with Covid-19 in Frankfurt, where a suspected outbreak occurred at the crew’s hotel.

Earlier on Wednesday, Elsa Yuen May-yee, president of the Hong Kong Logistics Association, warned the government’s recent decision to require 130 Cathay Pacific aircrew to undergo 21 days compulsory quarantine after returning from Frankfurt would take a toll on the sector, particularly given the higher demand of the Christmas and New Year seasons.

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“Given that Cathay Pacific is our main carrier and a large number of staff were laid off during the pandemic, I believe at least 30 per cent of the capacity will be affected as a result,” she told a radio programme on Wednesday.

“Delivery fees are also expected to increase, and we are worried those additional costs will be shifted to consumers.”

Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, chairman of the Medical Association’s communicable diseases committee, meanwhile, took issue with Cathay’s recently announced plans to step up its internal pandemic measures, including requiring that aircrew leave their homes for no more than two hours a day while self-isolating.

It would be safer for returning aircrew to undergo compulsory hotel quarantine just like everyone else, he told the same radio programme, adding family members of crew should at least undergo medical surveillance if airline staff were allowed to home quarantine.

“A pilot cannot go to work if [they] need to be self-isolating at home, so why not do the hotel quarantine just like everyone else in such cases? This would be safer,” Tsang said.

Asked about FedEx’s decision to close its pilot base, Gary Lau, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Freight Forwarding And Logistics, told the Post he did not believe the move would harm the city’s image as a logistics centre, as it was based on concerns about pandemic control issues rather than commercial policy.

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