Hundreds of flights cancelled leaving travellers facing chaos as citywide strike action hits Hong Kong International Airport

Danny Lee

A paralysing citywide strike forced Hong Kong airport bosses to cancel some 250 flights on Monday.

Air traffic controllers called in sick en masse as part of long-running anti-government protests, joining Hongkongers from more than 20 business sectors, cutting the number of flights that could take off or land.

Local airlines bore the brunt of the impact. Cathay Pacific Airways and Cathay Dragon cancelled 140 flights to and from the city, budget carrier HK Express axed 10 services and Hong Kong Airlines pulled 37 flights. Only a handful of foreign carriers cancelled services, while most long-haul flights were preserved.

A limited number of Tuesday flights were also affected. Cathay Pacific and Dragon cancelled 14 services on Tuesday, with HK Express delaying seven services and Hong Kong Airlines scrapping the same number.

The strike was the latest chapter in protests that have rocked the city for more than two months. Protesters demand the full withdrawal of an unpopular extradition bill, which has already been shelved, and an independent investigation into the government’s handling of the political crisis.

The cancelled flights were a blow to the local tourism sector, fuelling concerns that the nine weeks of increasingly violent civil unrest could hit the city’s economy.

More than 1,000 passenger flights had been scheduled to depart and arrive in Hong Kong on Monday, with 511 services departing the city, according to the airport authority’s website.

As part of the reduction of flights, authorities planned for 34 flights to take off per hour, instead of the usual maximum of 68.

For some, just getting to the airport proved a challenge, with protesters causing the Airport Express train service to be briefly suspended and in-town check-in facilities to be halted for the entire day.

Even if my flight was affected, I wouldn’t mind. All Hongkongers know what’s going on in Hong Kong. Even if Hong Kong keeps striking for another couple of days, I wouldn’t mind,

Catherine Ma, travelling from Shanghai

The Cathay Pacific Group, which comprises its flagship brand and Cathay Dragon, had reduced the number of cabin crew to a minimum to ensure as many flights as possible would take off, as it had recognised a large number of flight attendants and some pilots would call in sick. Newly acquired HK Express is also part of the airline group.

Routes with some of the highest frequencies – including Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, Shanghai, Manila and Singapore – suffered cuts.

Tech professional Davis Ng, 45, had his 2.30pm Cathay Pacific flight to Singapore cancelled, and bought a ticket for a Singapore Airlines flight at 8am instead.

Hundreds of flights have been cancelled, leaving passengers stranded and others unable to land. Photo: May Tse

“I don’t think it is inconvenient for me to change to an earlier flight and to get ready at 5am. The message had already been clear to me that there would be a big strike in Hong Kong today. People understand what the situation is about and the traffic to the airport this morning was quite smooth,” Ng said.

Tourist Michelle Marshall, on holiday from England, said her travelling party of four experienced eight days of protests and a typhoon. The group arrived early at the airport for their Cathay Pacific flight to Singapore, avoiding public transport for fear of disruption.

“If I’d known in January what was happening in Hong Kong I wouldn’t have booked,” the 53 year-old said. “I don’t want to be stuck here for another 24 hours because we would have nowhere else to go.”

In Shanghai, Catherine Ma, a vice-president at a French investment bank, was spared a cancellation on her flight back to the city.

“Even if my flight was affected, I wouldn’t mind. All Hongkongers know what’s going on in Hong Kong. Even if Hong Kong keeps striking for another couple of days, I wouldn’t mind,” Ma, who is in her 30s, said.

Hongkonger Jat Wu, who works in the hospitality industry, was less understanding. He grew frustrated as he waited for his Shanghai flight back to the city, having had his plans rearranged twice due to the strikes.

Hong Kong police play catch-up as protesters wreak havoc across the city

“I don’t support this strike at all. I have to go back to work tomorrow. If you don’t have family to take care of and your parents feed you no matter what, of course you don’t mind the strike,” the 58 year-old Yuen Long resident said.

“I oppose the entire movement as a whole because it’s not getting us anywhere. You see what’s happening in Shanghai, right? Great things are being built. Talents are going there.”

Only one runway will be in operation at Hong Kong International Airport until Tuesday morning. Photo: May Tse

The strike hit at the height of the summer, when packed flights generate big profits for airlines, dealing a blow to the publicly listed Cathay Pacific Group.

Shares in Hong Kong’s biggest airline, whose large cargo arm is already weathering the effects of the US-China trade war, closed 4.2 per cent down at HK$10.40 a share when the city’s stock exchange closed.

The carrier will release its financial results for the first half of 2019 on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Karen Yeung and Josh Ye in Shanghai

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