Pilots at Cathay Pacific Airways are demanding a bigger role in restructuring talks, with the company weeks away from terminating its recognition of their union, as major decisions that could affect thousands of jobs loom.
The Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association (HKAOA) is seeking to win public support, including placing a newspaper advertisement, to mount pressure on the city’s flag carrier to save as many livelihoods as possible.
“We’re hoping that before the company makes an announcement in terms of how pilots will be part of the restructuring, we’ll have an opportunity to engage with them,” Chris Beebe, general secretary of the union body, told the Post in an interview.
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He added: “When it comes to the future of pilots and their families, we feel as stakeholders it is something we should be involved in. We think that if we work together, we can produce something superior to what we could do independently.”
Meanwhile, the association’s two key union agreements with Cathay expire on October 14, following termination notices served three months ago. The expiry means the airline would no longer recognise union representation for its pilots, and it would not have to undergo talks on HKAOA’s terms.
Beebe, who said he aimed to save every association member’s job, called the actions by Cathay “worrying”.
A person familiar with the matter said the move paved the way for the airline to introduce permanent changes to pilots’ contracts with little resistance.
In a poll commissioned by market researcher Ipsos, the union found that of 1,000 people from the general public surveyed, nine in 10 said HKAOA pilots were important to Hong Kong’s global reputation, and 87 per cent said they were important to the city’s economy.
“We feel that this demonstrates that the HKAOA pilots are connected to the community, that they’re relevant, and that they have value to the community,” Beebe said.
Responding to the survey, a Cathay spokeswoman said: “We emphatically agree with this research. Our team of over 30,000 outstanding people, including our pilots, who help make us Asia’s leading aviation hub, are vitally important to Hong Kong. We have taken, and will continue to take, every measure we can to protect as many livelihoods as possible.”
She added that the company had “ongoing communication with all our different employee groups”, including with the Aircrew Officers Association, and “our door remains open” to ideas presented.
From the point of view of Cathay’s management, this would be a good opportunity to streamline costs. No employee is bigger than the company
Shukor Yusof, Endau Analytics
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon declined to apply for a further round of government wage subsidies earlier this month. This means they no longer have to abide by the condition to retain jobs, raising the spectre of mass lay-offs that could happen as early as next month.
The carrier has been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic, and earlier received a HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) bailout from the government and shareholders to survive the ongoing crisis.
Airline group CEO Augustus Tang Kin-wing told the Post on Monday it was facing a surplus of staff and “right-sizing” was “inevitable” amid an urgent need to take decisive action to preserve cash. Non-core businesses would be reviewed as part of the company’s overhaul.
Beebe said he was unable to comment on the union’s own proposals in possible talks with the airline, given it had not seen an opportunity to meet company bosses.
Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation consultant Endau Analytics, said: “There will be animosity for whatever management tries to do to realign the numbers in the possible retrenchment of cockpit crew. In reality Cathay will have very little choice.
“Cathay pilots are among the highest paid in the world. From the point of view of Cathay’s management, this would be a good opportunity to streamline costs. No employee is bigger than the company.”
At the end of last year, Hong Kong’s two main airlines employed 4,100 pilots, but the HKAOA only represented 2,200 city-based pilots at Cathay.
The Dragonair Pilots Association, representing Cathay Dragon, unveiled its own public proposals weeks ago to avoid redundancies in exchange for various pay cuts.
Singapore Airlines struck a deal with pilots last week for deeper pay cuts to save most of its cockpit crew. The city state’s national carrier still pressed on with shedding 20 per cent of its workforce.
British pilots union Balpa secured a deal with British Airways to reduce job cuts to 270 positions, instead of the 1,255 planned from a total of 4,300 pilots.
The country’s low-cost airline group easyJet managed to avoid compulsory redundancies, after anticipating 727 cuts. However, a handful of pilots left voluntarily and more than 1,500 opted for part-time work.