“Toxic climate”: Hong Kong pilots bend under “zero COVID” rules

“Toxic climate”: Hong Kong pilots bend under “zero COVID” rules

Hong Kong, China – When a Cathay Pacific pilot checked the company’s seniority list last month, he was shocked at what he saw. In six months, it had gained around 400 seats – an indication that the same number of pilots had left the airline during the period.
The airline’s departures come amid growing frustration over Hong Kong’s strict “zero COVID” policy, which has cut off “the global city of Asia” from the world and raised questions about its future as as an aviation hub.

Within Cathay Pacific, many employees feel that management has not pushed back the Hong Kong government’s zero tolerance pandemic strategy enough, leaving them to bear the brunt of the strict pandemic rules that include some of the most common quarantines. long in the world.

“It’s always a very knee-jerk reaction to government regulations,” the pilot, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera. “That’s why morale has dropped quite significantly over the past few weeks. “

The pilot, who has worked at the airline for nearly a decade, said the breaking point for many staff came after health officials sent 130 pilots to a government-run quarantine facility after that three people contracted COVID-19 in Frankfurt. At least 20 staff members tendered their resignations the same day and more are expected to follow, the pilot said.

While it’s not clear how many pilots have left the airline due to strict city rules, recent departures represent an increase in turnover over previous years. According to airline figures, only 130 pilots retired or resigned in 2018.

“They just agreed to do whatever the government asked without really thinking about it,” said the pilot, who has been grounded since July 2020 and suffered a 20% pay cut to see his estimated date of reinstatement. postponed several times.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition, a federation of pilot unions, expressed concern about “untenable working conditions” at Cathay Pacific since the start of the pandemic, including extended periods of quarantine and separation from family.

“Cathay Pacific pilots face hostile management,” said John Sluys, chair of the coalition, which represents 30,000 pilots. “The result is a toxic industrial climate. “

Hong Kong reported only 213 deaths during pandemic [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

To align with mainland Chinese policy, Hong Kong stubbornly sticks to a “zero COVID” strategy that imposes up to 21 days of quarantine for overseas arrivals and loosely defined “close contacts” of those who test positive.

Residents unlucky enough to quarantine themselves at the hotel when another guest tests positive face an additional 14 days, bringing their lockdown to 35 days. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam defended the approach as necessary to restore travel to the mainland and protect public health in the city, where only 213 people have died from COVID-19.

In the past fortnight, Swiss International Air Lines and British Airways have suspended flights to the city, citing strict quarantine procedures for the crew.

Cathay Pacific, however, has not failed to adapt to government policies, which some medical experts have criticized as devoid of any scientific basis.

Another Cathay Pacific pilot who spoke to Al Jazeera said he could only endure one lap of the airline’s’ closed loop ‘system before resuming temporary leave as it was’ too demanding. mentally ”.

The closed-loop system requires crew members to remain isolated for three to four weeks of flight, followed by another extended quarantine period upon their return to Hong Kong.

The pilot, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, had initially volunteered to fly under the policy in anticipation of another round of job cuts, following the layoff of 5,900 employees l ‘last year.

“The new contract allows the company to choose the people to be made redundant rather than by seniority. I was worried that if I stayed idle I would be in the line of fire, ”said the pilot, adding that some pilots were on their fifth or sixth loop.

It now performs extended duty flights, where crew members work longer with an exemption granted by the Hong Kong Department of Civil Aviation.

“Unrealistic in a globalized world”

A new cost-cutting measure that cuts wages for some crew members on extended duty has also affected staff morale. Despite the holiday season, Cathay has had to cut a third of its passenger flights due to a lack of crew willing to work under the deal.

“It makes no sense to keep the borders closed and maintain such strict quarantine measures, while the rest of the world is reverting to the norm,” the pilot said.

“Instead of leveraging our position to push for policy change, the company maintains these flight arrangements, which mitigate its impact and allow the government to keep it in place,” he said. “And that made the life of the aviation industry very difficult. “

A spokesperson for Cathay Pacific said that although the current environment was “difficult for everyone,” the airline supports Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic measures and sees their success as “the key to resuming travel. scheduled cross-border flights and the maintenance of the city’s aviation hub status ”. ”.

“Until the end of October, our rate of resignation and early retirement was comparable to historical data,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company was supporting staff with time off after closed-loop periods, incentives financial and extended leave. . “Unfortunately, the incident in Frankfurt affected current sentiment; However, we fully expect to be a competitive employer of local and international talent in the long term and we anticipate this. We plan to employ several hundred pilots over the coming year, many of whom have already expressed interest in being part of the Cathay brand.

The spokesperson added that the recent closure of its overseas bases for pilots and normal attrition and retirements made up “the majority” in the seniority list.

International Travel Stopped Under Hong Kong’s Strict ‘Zero COVID’ Policies [File: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg]

John Grant, chief analyst at British consulting firm Midas Aviation, told Al Jazeera that the government’s zero-tolerance policies threatened Hong Kong’s status, including its position as the world’s busiest cargo hub.

“Until broader access to the Chinese market is restored and Chinese authorities begin to accept that a COVID zero position is unrealistic in a globalized world, the current position will not improve,” Grant said. .

The pilot exodus adds to existing woes for Cathay Pacific, which include a global shortage of aviation professionals, Grant said. But he predicted that the impact of the Omicron variant would be limited, as the airline is already operating at less than 30% of its usual capacity.

“After all, how much worse can it really be for Cathay?” ” he said.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aerospace consultancy Teal Group, said Hong Kong faces bigger challenges than other aviation hubs that have seen huge drops in traffic, such as Singapore and Dubai.

“Considering the other huge challenges facing Hong Kong, such as political repression, massive brain drain, and Beijing’s wider use of hostage diplomacy, quarantine is really just a blip.” , said Aboulafia.


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