Hong Kong, China – When a Cathay Pacific pilot checked the company’s seniority list last month, he was shocked by what he saw. Within six months, he had moved up about 400 places – an indication that the same number of pilots had left the airline during the period.
The departures at the airline come amid mounting frustration with Hong Kong’s stringent “zero COVID” policy, which has cut off “Asia’s World City” from the world and raised questions about its future as an aviation hub.
Within Cathay Pacific, many employees feel management has not sufficiently pushed back on the Hong Kong government’s zero-tolerance pandemic strategy, leaving them to bear the brunt of harsh pandemic rules that include some of the lengthiest quarantines in the world.
“It is always a very knee-jerk reaction to government regulations,” the pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera. “That’s why morale has dropped quite significantly in 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 authorities sent 130 pilots to a government-run quarantine facility after three people contracted COVID-19 in Frankfurt. At least 20 staff members submitted their resignations the same day and more are expected to follow, the pilot said.
Although it is not clear how many pilots have left the airline due to the city’s stringent rules, the recent departures represent an uptick in turnover compared with previous years. According to the airline’s figures, just 130 pilots retired or resigned in 2018.
“They just agreed to do everything the government asked without really thinking it through,” said the pilot, who has been grounded since July 2020 and has taken a 20 percent pay cut only to see his estimated date of reinstatement repeatedly postponed.
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 pandemic hit, including extended periods in quarantine and separation from family.
“The pilots of Cathay Pacific face a hostile management,” said John Sluys, chair of the coalition, which represents 30,000 pilots. “The result is a toxic industrial climate.”
To align with mainland China’s policy, Hong Kong has stuck stubbornly to a “zero COVID” strategy that mandates up to 21 days of quarantine for arrivals from overseas and loosely defined “close contacts” of those who test positive.
Residents who are unlucky enough to be doing hotel quarantine when another guest tests positive face an additional 14 days, bringing their confinement to 35 days. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has defended the approach as necessary to restore travel with the mainland and safeguard public health in the city, where just 213 people have died from COVID-19.
In the last fortnight, Swiss International Air Lines and British Airways have suspended flights to the city, citing the strict quarantine procedures for crew.
Cathay Pacific, however, has been unfailing in accommodating the government’s policies, which some medical experts have criticised as lacking any scientific basis.
Another Cathay Pacific pilot who spoke to Al Jazeera said he could only endure one round of the airline’s “closed-loop” system before going back on temporary leave as it was “too mentally demanding”.
The closed-loop system requires crew members to remain in isolation throughout three to four weeks of flying, followed by another extended period of quarantine when they 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 last year.
“The new contract allows the company to cherry-pick whom to dismiss instead of by seniority. I feared that if I stayed idle, I would be in the firing line,” the pilot said, adding that some pilots were on their fifth or sixth loop.
He is now doing extended duty turnaround flights, where crew members work a longer shift with an exemption granted by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department.
‘Unrealistic in a global world’
A new cost-cutting measure that reduces the pay for some crew members on extended duty has also affected staff morale. Despite the holiday season, Cathay has had to slash one-third of its passenger flights due to a lack of crew willing to work under the arrangement.
“It makes no sense to keep the borders closed and maintain such strict quarantine measures, when the rest of the world is returning to the norm,” said the pilot.
“Instead of leveraging our position to push for a change in policy, the company maintains these flight arrangements, which mitigate its impact and allows the government to keep it in place,” he said. “And it has made the lives of those in the aviation industry very difficult.”
A Cathay Pacific spokesperson said that while the current environment was “challenging for everyone,” the airline supported Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic measures and saw their success as “key to the resumption of regular cross-border air travel and upholding the city’s aviation hub status”.
“Up to the end of October, our resignation and early retirement rate has been on par with historical data,” the spokesperson said, adding that the company was supporting staff with time off after closed-loop periods, financial incentives and extended leaves of absence. “Regrettably, the incident in Frankfurt has affected current sentiment; however, we fully expect to be a competitive employer of both local and international talent in the long term and we are planning for that. We plan to employ several hundred pilots in the coming year, many of whom have already expressed an 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 accounted for “the majority” in the seniority list.
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 the Chinese authorities start accepting that a zero-COVID stance is unrealistic in a global world, the current position will not improve,” Grant said.
The exodus of pilots adds to existing woes for Cathay Pacific, which include a global shortage of aviation professionals, Grant said. But he predicted the impact of the Omicron variant would be limited, as the airline is already operating at less than 30 percent of its usual capacity.
“After all, how much worse can it really get for Cathay?” he said.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aerospace consultancy Teal Group, said Hong Kong faced deeper challenges than other aviation hubs that had seen huge declines in traffic, such as Singapore and Dubai.
“Given the other enormous challenges Hong Kong faces, such as the political crackdown, the massive exodus of talent and Beijing’s broader use of hostage diplomacy, the quarantine is really just a blip,” Aboulafia said.