Cathay’s pilot exodus persists as pandemic curbs hit morale

One Cathay Pacific pilot had been with the airline for more than five years and planned a long career.

But at the end of September, he quit the Hong Kong carrier, packed up his belongings and headed to Australia for a lower-paying job at a flying academy.

Cathay and its long-suffering pilots have been big casualties of the pandemic, as severe job cuts and punishing Covid-19 restrictions have disrupted operations and hit profits.

“I just needed a break from everything . . . I don’t want to work for Cathay anymore,” said the pilot, who asked not to be named. He added the constant Covid tests and restrictions had sapped his morale and left him tired and stressed.

Working conditions were badly disrupted when Cathay sacked 8,500 people, almost a quarter of its staff, at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

A flood of pilot resignations followed a year later because of anger over pay cuts of up to 60 per cent and irritation with tough Covid-19 curbs.

A staff member speaks with applicants during a Cathay Pacific flight attendant recruitment event
A Cathay Pacific recruitment event in Hong Kong last month © Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

By the third quarter of this year, pilot headcount had slipped to a total of 2,412, according to an internal document seen by the Financial Times, down more than a quarter from 2019, with many of Cathay’s most senior staff — captains and first officers — among those having quit. Between 30 and 50 pilots are still resigning each month, according to the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, the pilots’ union.

Much of the crew discontentment has stemmed from “closed-loop” rosters, which involved completing multiple flights in stretches of up to four weeks without being allowed home, followed by mandatory hotel quarantines.

This meant not seeing friends or family for up to seven weeks. In total, staff spent 73,000 nights in quarantine last year, the airline said.

“You are in complete darkness for five, six days,” said another pilot, who has flown with the airline for more than 10 years and did not want to be named. “You sleep all day American time, and you are awake all night Hong Kong time,” he added, referring to his North America trips.

Cathay Pacific staff walk through the arrival hall at Hong Kong International Airport
Cathay Pacific staff walk through the arrival hall at Hong Kong International Airport © Li Zhihua/China News Service/Getty Images

The widespread discontent among pilots meant other carriers, including Qantas and Qatar Airways, were able to poach them, said Paul Weatherilt, chair of the HKAOA pilots’ union.

The airline is looking to recruit more than 700 pilots and 2,000 cabin crew over the next year. In its first cabin crew recruitment drive in October, it received more than 1,000 applications, despite a basic monthly salary of HK$9,100 (US$1,160), lower than pre-pandemic levels, for a flight attendant.

Cathay said it had sufficient pilots and cabin crew to support operations and the “goal was to protect as many jobs as possible, while meeting our responsibilities to the Hong Kong aviation hub and our customers”.

It also said last month it would be adding more than 500,000 seats and about 700 and 1,200 new flights in November and December respectively, mainly to Japan and the UK.

In addition, the airline has been bringing back some of its fleet, parked during the pandemic in aircraft storage areas in the deserts of Australia.

It is hoping to reach one-third of its pre-pandemic passenger capacity by the end of the year, much lower than rivals such as Singapore Airlines, which expects to achieve over 80 per cent of its pre-Covid levels by December.

Ronald Lam, Cathay’s chief customer and commercial officer who takes over as chief executive in January, told the FT last month that it would take another two years — until the end of 2024 or early 2025 — to reach pre-pandemic capacity again.

The airline, known for its premium lounges and loyalty schemes, also faces questions about its identity after the cost cuts.

Looking for new revenue streams after suffering during the pandemic, it aimed to reposition itself as a premium travel lifestyle brand with a focus on ecommerce.

“You have enough on your plate when you are trying to run an airline and just be a good transportation brand,” a former executive said.

“Running a premium lifestyle brand is hard. It is really, really hard . . . particularly now people are going to be back flying again in big numbers.”

In the end, the airline ended up searching for ways to save money as it attempted to reduce the number of cabin crew on each flight and lower the cost of some in-flight services such as drinks offered to passengers, said air crew and former executives.

Cathay insisted in a response that the number of cabin crew onboard flights was “comparable with the market and well above regulatory requirements”.

Among sustainability initiatives, it said it changed some drinks services to reduce the use of plastic, and it had “further enhanced food and beverage offerings” in business class.

“Unfortunately, it is what it is. Cathay has gone from a Rolex to a Casio,” one of the pilots said. “I don’t think you will see a huge recovery for a long, long time.”


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