Job losses loom as Hong Kong plans to renew visas of expat Cathay pilots, but exclude foreign cabin crew

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Hong Kong immigration officials will renew the visas of all of Cathay Pacific’s expatriate pilots, but its large contingent of foreign cabin crew will be denied extensions permitting them to remain based in the city, the airline has said.

The decision leaves Cathay’s foreign cabin crew at risk of losing their jobs, with the airline saying it would offer the same voluntary redundancy package to affected staff that it offered to others in late April.

In its memo on Thursday, Cathay expressed regret that some employees would have to leave the company as a result of the decision, but said it would lodge appeals on behalf of certain cabin crew, particularly those with Japanese and Korean language skills.

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A Cathay Pacific spokeswoman confirmed the details of the visa decision on Thursday.

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Since late last year, the aviation industry has encountered resistance from the Immigration Department, which has only been willing to offer short-term visa renewals for foreign staff of up to three months.

Authorities have attributed the hardline stance to rising unemployment among skilled aviation workers in the city, with the shutdown of regional airline Cathay Dragon last year seen by many as a significant factor.

The Post understands freighter pilots – who have played a key operational role at the airline amid the Covid-19 crisis – would get three-year visa extensions, while passenger crew would only get six to 12-month extensions.

Alex McGowan, Cathay’s director of service delivery, told cabin crew that the airline had made “the strongest possible case” to authorities that their visas should be renewed.

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“Despite our best efforts I’m sincerely sorry to report that we have been advised that no current applications for these work permit renewals will be approved,” McGowan said.

“It is a condition of the renewal of a work permit that the role cannot be taken up readily by the workforce available in Hong Kong,” he added. “It is on this basis that we understand that the decision has been made.”

The airline went on to say that it understood “work permits for pilots will continue to be renewed on an ongoing basis and that, over time, longer extensions will be granted”.

Sources told the Post that while Korean and Japanese-speaking cabin crew would be part of the company’s appeals process, Taiwanese flight attendants would not be so lucky given that many Hongkongers working flights to the self-ruled island also spoke Mandarin.

Cathay has told its employees that it understands work permits for pilots will continue to be renewed going forward. Photo: Winson Wong
Cathay has told its employees that it understands work permits for pilots will continue to be renewed going forward. Photo: Winson Wong

A company spokeswoman said Cathay was committed “to giving our utmost support to those who sadly will have to leave us”.

“We appreciate that these developments may cause some concern for our aircrew whose work permits are due to expire in the coming months, and we are providing what support we can to anyone in this situation,” she added.

Financial pressures stemming from 18 months of pandemic-related travel restrictions have hit Cathay Pacific and the global aviation industry hard. Airlines in Asia, however, face being left behind in their recovery as countries in the West, led by the US and Europe, relax travel rules sooner.

Cathay’s business, meanwhile, remains severely hobbled. In April, it operated 96.4 per cent fewer flights than its pre-pandemic norm.

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Hong Kong’s flag carrier was saved by a HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) government-led bailout this time last year, and in October, the airline cut 5,900 jobs – many of which came from Cathay Dragon.

The airline has since continued to shrink its workforce.

In April, it offered voluntary redundancy to pilots, cabin crew and other staff, and closed down foreign pilot bases in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Germany, affecting 280 jobs. Many office staff members have resigned in recent months too, sources said.

Traditionally, the airline has relied heavily on foreign pilots – many of whom have secured permanent residency in Hong Kong over the years.

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A concern group for former Cathay Dragon employees on Thursday blasted the government’s decision to renew expat pilots’ work visas, saying the move was a slap in the face to unemployed aviators with permanent residency.

As of the end of last year, Cathay Pacific employed 3,100 pilots and around 8,750 cabin crew. However, it is unclear how many cabin crew would be affected by the latest decision.

Given its skeleton schedule, the airline was already dealing with a large surplus of cabin crew amid a slower-than-expected recovery. The long-haul flight market is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Cathay pilots, while still underutilised, are busier, with many being moved to freighter planes as the air cargo business has boomed, blunting the impact of the collapse in passenger travel.

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