Cathay looks at moving pilots out of Hong Kong as quarantine bites

Cathay Pacific is looking at asking pilots to live outside of Hong Kong for several months, as the airline is forced to consider more radical measures to operate under the city’s strict Covid-19 quarantine policy.

Hong Kong’s approach, which business chiefs have warned could cripple the economy, is the latest threat to the city’s de facto flag carrier.

The government has committed to the policy of zero Covid-19 cases in an effort to open the city’s border with mainland China, and its leaders have said strict health controls are necessary.

Most incoming travellers are required to quarantine in a hotel for two to three weeks, with officials offering a few controversial exemptions, including for actress Nicole Kidman and this week to Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s chief executive.

Cathay’s cabin crew and pilots have already been observing a series of rostering and health measures to minimise their exposure to the virus abroad, but the carrier said on Tuesday it might need to go further and have Hong Kong-based employees live outside the city for two to four months.

“We are exploring options and seeking expressions of interest from pilots to participate in temporary extended roster patterns,” Cathay said.

The decision by Cathay, owned by the colonial-era Swire conglomerate, to examine more radical options comes as more than 100 pilots were forced to isolate, risking supply of air freight into the city.

Three pilots have tested positive for Covid-19 over the past week, prompting action from health authorities.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, said on Tuesday that about 130 Cathay pilots who had stayed at the same hotel in Frankfurt as colleagues who tested positive were ordered into 21 days of quarantine.

“[The move] has already greatly affected Hong Kong’s cargo logistics,” Lam told reporters. “If there were one or two more of these cases, our cargo planes will probably be left with no more pilots operating them.”

In a sign of potential disruption, about 120 children were earlier this week forced into quarantine because one of the pilots who tested positive is married to a school teacher.

Cathay said it was reviewing its air crew resources, and that “we are trying our best to maintain our cargo network as much as we can”.

The airline has already been hit hard by the pandemic. Its finances were so decimated that it was forced to ask for a historic bailout from the Hong Kong government. In October 2020, the airline cut almost a quarter of its staff as it restructured and closed its regional arm Cathay Dragon.

“They have downsized staff in terms of staff and pilots and rightly so as they needed to cut costs, but now that’s coming back to bite them,” said David Yu, an airline valuation expert at New York University in Shanghai. “They just don’t have the back-up capacity of cargo and crew they would normally have.”

Patrick Healy, the airline’s chair, warned in August that quarantine requirements and border restrictions meant Cathay faced “the most challenging period in our history” as it reported a HK$7.6bn (US$977m) net loss in the first half of 2021.

Cathay’s passenger load in September was still 95 per cent below the same month in 2019, before the pandemic struck. Cargo has been a bright spot, but its September capacity was 70 per cent what it moved in the same month in 2019.


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