‘Huge safety issue’: Hong Kong pilots’ warning over COVID rules

Aircrew speaking on condition of anonymity warn aviation hub’s harsh quarantine policies are damaging mental health.

Hong Kong
Pilots in Hong Kong have expressed concerns the city's pandemic restrictions could affect safety [FILE: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/ Reuters]

Hong Kong’s “zero COVID” policies are making working conditions so unbearable for aircrew that they pose a potential safety risk, pilots who have worked in the aviation hub have warned.

In interviews with Al Jazeera, four current and former pilots in Hong Kong  – all of whom requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue – said harsh quarantine rules raised safety concerns due to their effect on the mental health and wellbeing of aircrew.

A fifth pilot said that while he did not believe the situation had “reached that point yet,” the current policies were “pushing the envelope of the known”.

The measures include a “closed-loop” system that sees aircrew work three-week rosters during which they are confined to a hotel room when not flying, followed by an additional two weeks of hotel quarantine. Under the system, which is voluntary, some aircrew have racked up months in isolation without fresh air or exercise. The schedules have also resulted in some aircrew, many of whom are expatriates, not seeing family in their home countries for long stretches during the pandemic.

“I do believe it’s a safety problem, and it’s a big safety problem,” a former pilot with Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific told Al Jazeera. “Would I now put my family on a Cathay Pacific passenger aeroplane knowing what the guys are going through? Honestly? No.”

The ex-pilot, who departed Cathay Pacific late last year, said the fact there had not been an incident up until now was a testament to the “very good pilots” employed by the airline.

“If there was an incident with Cathay now, or had been in the last six months, or will be in the next six months, this will be the key and central issue,” said the pilot. “What was the mental state of the guys flying those aeroplanes, and how many holes in the Swiss cheese lined up?”

Hong Kong airport
Hong Kong has imposed some of the toughest quarantine rules on Earth during the pandemic [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Another pilot who left Cathay Pacific last year to work in the United States told Al Jazeera the current situation posed a “huge safety issue”.

“Flight crew are locked in an endless cycle of work/isolate without any opportunity to relax, exercise, socialise – aspects of life essential for health and wellbeing,” the pilot said.

“From day one, pilots are taught the risks of distraction. Heavy emphasis is made on keeping external problems off the flight deck to maintain full focus on the safety-critical tasks at hand,” he said. “I hope no one cracks, but people are extremely distracted and emotionally fatigued.”

A pilot at rival Hong Kong Airlines, who has witnessed numerous colleagues resign and call in sick to avoid flying, told Al Jazeera that although he did not expect an accident that would result in a “smoking hole in the ground,” he could see an incident such as a tail strike landing or runway overrun.

“My concern is that if times were normal, the crew could probably deal with it more safely and accurately,” said the pilot, who has not flown since the pandemic started. “But now with all this added pressure and closed loop, their reliance to overcome is reduced. That’s my concern.”

Several pilots said the risk had been exacerbated by Cathay Pacific’s introduction of a new contract in 2020 that reduced earnings for crew members who fly less often by up to 50 percent, incentivising staff to do closed-loop rosters to make up flight time.

“Can you imagine what pressure that puts on pilots to go to work even though they shouldn’t be going to work?” a cargo pilot from a European country who is currently employed by Cathay Pacific told Al Jazeera. “That’s the main safety issue, I think.”

A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department told Al Jazeera that aircrew were legally prohibited from working if they reasonably suspected they were mentally or physically unfit to fly.

“In other words, [the] individual crew member has the responsibility to report unfit for duties if it is the case. As [for] supporting measure for the well being of crew members, the CAD notes that all local airlines are providing mental health support programme so that assistance or counselling could be provided to crew members in need and in a timely manner,” the spokesperson said.

“Airlines should make proper arrangements to meet the relevant public health and flight safety requirements. The CAD will continue to monitor their arrangements with a view to ensuring that aviation safety will not be compromised.”

A Cathay Pacific spokesperson acknowledged the pandemic rules “are placing a burden on our aircrew, who have been exemplary in their conduct and professionalism throughout this difficult period.”

“The environment has been challenging for everyone, especially our aircrew, we continue to support our teams by managing what we can control, such as periods of free time after closed-loop roster patterns, financial incentives and options to take extended leave of absence,” the spokesperson said. “We have bi-weekly dial-in sessions hosted by senior management to discuss and share concerns, and we have a Pilot Support Team who are in constant contact with pilots within quarantine. Our Flight Crew People Services Team, our Pilot Assistance Network and the company’s Employee Assistance Programme are available around the clock to help individuals in need.”

The spokesperson added that aircrew could withdraw from closed-loop rosters “without prejudice at any time.”

A spokesperson for Airport Authority Hong Kong said pandemic policies were set by the government but the airport “maintains close communications with airport business partners” on complying with quarantine rules.

‘Prison-like conditions’

Trevor Bock, a safety consultant for Aviation Safety Asia, told Al Jazeera conditions were causing stress and psychological issues that posed a concern “in a role requiring high performance and concentration levels”.

“These prison-like conditions – being isolated to hotel rooms down-route and on return from a trip – are now having a cumulative fatigue and stress effect on pilots,” said Bock, whose consultancy has offices in Hong Kong and Australia.

“Many have been enduring such for up to two years now – particularly cargo pilots – and this not only affects morale, but also motivation, dedication and in turn, can lead to complacency and reduced levels of alertness/concentration at crucial times.”

Under a “zero COVID” policy designed to align with mainland China, Hong Kong has transformed from one of the world’s busiest travel hubs into one of its most isolated cities. Despite the rollout of vaccines over the last year, the city has repeatedly tightened border restrictions and quarantine rules with little or no advance warning.

Authorities last week scrapped a limited number of existing quarantine exemptions for aircrew after two Cathay Pacific staff were found to have breached medical surveillance rules, forcing all non-mainland China passenger flights to use closed-loop staff.

Like other members of the public, aircrew who test positive also face being sent to an isolation ward until they are discharged – a process that takes a minimum of 10 days but can potentially be indefinite – after which they are sent to a quarantine facility for another 14 days.

An air safety expert at a regional airline who has direct knowledge of conditions in Hong Kong told Al Jazeera the government was forcing carriers to “push the boundaries” to keep operations safe.

“They’re tolerable risks but we’re doing them because we are pushing the limits a little bit more than we have done, a little bit more than rules have allowed to in the past,” the air safety expert said.

Some Cathay Pacific pilots feel scapegoated for the failures of the government’s ‘zero COVID’ policies [File: Bobby Yip/ Reuters]

The expert said that although he expected airlines would refuse to fly if they believed the risks were unacceptable, there was not a “limitless tether for safety”.

“It’s not been done to improve safety, I’ll tell you that first and foremost,” he said of the city’s pandemic rules.  “The government I don’t think really cares, from what I have seen.”

Several international airlines including Swiss International Air Lines, British Airways and Air Canada have suspended flights to Hong Kong in recent weeks due to the difficulty of complying with pandemic regulations in the former British colony, which since its return to Chinese sovereignty has marketed itself as “Asia’s World City”.

On Wednesday, the Hong Kong government temporarily banned flights from eight countries including the United States and United Kingdom, amid a community outbreak of the Omicron variant. On Thursday, Cathay Pacific said it would cut cargo capacity and passenger flights by about two-thirds and 80 percent, respectively, until at least the end of the month following the bans and tightened quarantine rules, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

Pilots who spoke to Al Jazeera also described their frustration at being scapegoated for the government’s failure to maintain its target of zero infections, which many medical experts see as unrealistic and unsustainable.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam last week summoned the CEO and chairman of Cathay Pacific to express “strong dissatisfaction” over the breaches by its staff. Local media have also taken aim at the airline, with the South China Morning Post publishing an editorial on Sunday headlined, “All Hongkongers must now pay the price for Cathay’s quarantine failure”.

In 2019, Cathay Pacific, whose largest shareholder is British colonial-era conglomerate Swire, came under pressure after China’s aviation regulator said aircrew who joined pro-democracy demonstrations in the city would be banned from mainland airspace, prompting then-CEO Rupert Hogg to warn staff they would be fired if they supported or participated in “illegal protests”. Hogg shortly afterward resigned to take responsibility for “recent events.”

“We take a chance, we go to work, we bring back supplies to Hong Kong and then we have to read about it in the newspaper that we’re bad guys,” said the European cargo pilot. “That’s morale damaging. Plus we know if something happens, no one has our back.”

Source: Al Jazeera