By Michelle Toh, CNN Business
Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific is facing “unprecedented” staff shortages and may not be ready to handle a surge in demand, as the city winds up its strict Covid policy and reopens for international travel.
A top local union warned Thursday of “a record number of resignations from the company’s most experienced pilots,” claiming that Cathay “has lost over 40% of its captains and first officers.”
In a statement, the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association (HKAOA) said that the carrier was “unprepared to regain its industry leadership position, threatening the status of Hong Kong as a global aviation hub.”
The group cited a breakdown in negotiations on pay, among other working conditions.
Hong Kong’s flagship airline is “facing unprecedented staffing and training shortages,” and “stands unprepared to fully resume its operations, failing to meet demand in a resurgent travel market,” the HKAOA said.
Like most airlines, Cathay has been pummeled during the pandemic. Once known as a premier employer, the carrier last year grappled with falling morale, a spike in resignations and mounting frustration as staff underwent Hong Kong’s arduous quarantine measures, which were some of the world’s strictest.
But, this month Hong Kong ended its two and a half years of quarantine measures, leading to a surge in demand for outbound travel.
The news brought some much-needed relief to Cathay, which was forced to slash capacity to as little as 2% of pre-pandemic levels during the global health crisis.
In recent weeks, Cathay has said it will add hundreds of new flight services in response to the relaxation of border controls. It even set up a virtual “waiting room” for its booking website as customers flooded its platform to buy tickets.
Now, the company is finding itself on the defense once again as pilots warn of continued workplace issues.
When asked for comment Thursday, a Cathay Pacific spokesperson told CNN Business that it “has sufficient qualified and experienced aviation professionals to continue to support the current operation and operate at the highest levels of safety and customer service.”
“We remain focused on building connectivity between Hong Kong and the world as swiftly as we possibly can. However, it will still take time to rebuild our capacity as we build operational readiness and undertake a substantial amount of training and aircraft reactivation,” the spokesperson said.
The company has already started a huge recruitment drive to enlist “more than 4,000 frontline employees to meet Cathay Pacific’s operational needs over the next 18-24 months,” the spokesperson added.
“We believe our contracts for pilots are competitive contracts.”
But as Hong Kong reopens after the pandemic other airlines are deciding on a different approach. On Wednesday, Virgin Atlantic announced it is closing its Hong Kong office and not resuming services between the Asian hub and London’s Heathrow Airport.
“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights in March 2023 as planned,” the company said.
Flights between London Heathrow and Hong Kong Airport have been paused since December 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re sorry for the disappointment caused to our loyal customers on this route and anyone booked to travel from March 2023, whose flights will be cancelled,” the company said, adding that customers affected will be able to amend their flights with no change fee or will be able to request a refund.
“We sincerely apologise for any inconvenience caused to affected customers,” it said.
Wayne Chang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.
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