Coronavirus: HK’s Cathay Pacific pressing government to relax quarantine restrictions, as most flight crews now vaccinated

24-Jul-2021 Intellasia | South Chin a Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Cathay Pacific is in talks with the Hong Kong government to remove the majority of quarantine restrictions on its flight crews now that most have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The embattled airline has expressed optimism that mandatory isolation rules will be lifted for “the majority” of its flights, allowing it to scale back costly health measures and strengthen its efforts to recover from the financial battering sustained amid the pandemic.

In building its case for relaxation, the airline has got tough with staff in recent months, adopting a hardline “no jab, no job” policy, warning that flight crews must be fully vaccinated by August 31 or face having their employment reviewed.

As of Monday, 97 per cent of Cathay Pacific pilots, 84 per cent of cabin crew and 79 per cent of non-flight staff based in Hong Kong were to have been vaccinated, giving it one of the highest rates of inoculation for any airline in the world.

According to its latest figures, the carrier employs about 3,100 pilots and roughly 8,750 cabin crew, with most based locally.

Quarantine for aircrew has increased the company’s cash burn by HK$400 million a month, to HK$1.9 billion (US$244.4 million), and it has been forced to slash already skeletal passenger schedules by almost two-thirds and cargo operations by a quarter because of the rules.

Cathay lost HK$21.6 billion in total last year, and is expected to report another “substantial” half-yearly loss in less than three weeks’ time.

“We are in active discussions with government stakeholders, and we have proposed a process to incrementally relax quarantine requirements,” the airline told staff in a Wednesday night memo.

“[Our] expectation [is] that we will no longer need [quarantine] for the majority of our operation, including a substantial portion of our passenger network.”

The airline said it was seeking a “meaningful reduction” of quarantine ideally a full removal of the requirement.

“Our vaccination rate and exemplary negative PCR test rate, over 100,000 negative tests to date, all support this approach,” it argued.

Currently, aircrew staying in very high-risk countries must do 14 days of quarantine and a week of medical surveillance in Hong Kong. For medium to low-risk countries, seven days of quarantine and 14 of home-based medical surveillance are required.

One of the airline’s wishes is that pilots be allowed to leave their hotel rooms overseas, which is currently forbidden and risks company disciplinary action.

A senior pilot said he supported the company’s stance.

“Arriving passengers don’t need to isolate at home before they take their flight. Pilots who are doing layovers in the closed loop have to quarantine on their return anyway, so they are no different than normal passengers,” the pilot said.

“At some point the government will need to trust the vaccine.”

The airline is still seeking volunteer crews to operate quarantine flights for three or four weeks at a time in August and beyond.

Despite Cathay’s confidence in scaling back quarantine measures, it said the “timeline is uncertain, but we believe we are on the road to exiting much of our [quarantine] requirements”.

Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert at Chinese University and government adviser on the pandemic, said a relaxation for the airline’s crew could be acceptable, but quarantine should not be removed outright.

“It depends on what vaccine they have, because the efficacy is variable. It depends on which countries they are coming from due to variants reducing the effectiveness,” Hui said.

“Certainly we can shorten the duration [of quarantine], but we have to be careful. They should still undergo home quarantine.”

Separately, the airline told its staff it would commence a review of its US pilot bases “later in the year”, with 140 jobs in the balance. That came days after the airline said it would consult with London-based pilots about closing that base, putting almost 100 cockpit crew jobs at risk.


Category: Hong Kong

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