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

Hong Kong’s “zero COVID” insurance policies are making working circumstances so insufferable for aircrew that they pose a possible security threat, pilots who’ve labored within the aviation hub have warned.

In interviews with Al Jazeera, 4 present and former pilots in Hong Kong  – all of whom requested anonymity as a result of sensitivity of the difficulty – mentioned harsh quarantine rules raised security considerations as a result of their impact on the psychological well being and wellbeing of aircrew.

A fifth pilot mentioned that whereas he didn’t consider the scenario had “reached that point yet,” the present insurance policies have been “pushing the envelope of the known”.

The measures embrace a “closed-loop” system that sees aircrew work three-week rosters throughout which they’re confined to a lodge room when not flying, adopted by a further two weeks of lodge quarantine. Under the system, which is voluntary, some aircrew have racked up months in isolation with out recent air or train. The schedules have additionally resulted in some aircrew, lots of whom are expatriates, not seeing household of their home international locations for lengthy stretches in the course of 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 service Cathay Pacific informed 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 final 12 months, mentioned the actual fact there had not been an incident up till now was a testomony 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,” mentioned 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 airportHong Kong has imposed among the hardest quarantine rules on Earth in the course of the pandemic [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Another pilot who left Cathay Pacific final 12 months to work within the United States informed Al Jazeera the present scenario 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 mentioned.

“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 mentioned. “I hope no one cracks, but people are extremely distracted and emotionally fatigued.”

A pilot at rival Hong Kong Airlines, who has witnessed quite a few colleagues resign and name in sick to keep away from flying, informed Al Jazeera that though he didn’t anticipate an accident that will end in a “smoking hole in the ground,” he might see an incident reminiscent of a tail strike touchdown or runway overrun.

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

Several pilots mentioned the danger had been exacerbated by Cathay Pacific’s introduction of a brand new contract in 2020 that decreased earnings for crew members who fly much less usually by as much as 50 %, incentivising employees 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 nation who’s at present employed by Cathay Pacific informed Al Jazeera. “That’s the main safety issue, I think.”

A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department informed Al Jazeera that aircrew have been legally prohibited from working in the event that they fairly suspected they have been mentally or bodily 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 mentioned.

“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 mentioned. “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 might withdraw from closed-loop rosters “without prejudice at any time.”

A spokesperson for Airport Authority Hong Kong mentioned pandemic insurance policies have been set by the federal government however the airport “maintains close communications with airport business partners” on complying with quarantine rules.

‘Prison-like conditions’

Trevor Bock, a security advisor for Aviation Safety Asia, informed Al Jazeera circumstances have been inflicting stress and psychological points that posed a priority “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,” mentioned Bock, whose consultancy has places of work 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” coverage designed to align with mainland China, Hong Kong has reworked from one of many world’s busiest travel hubs into one in all its most remoted cities. Despite the rollout of vaccines over the past 12 months, the town has repeatedly tightened border restrictions and quarantine rules with little or no advance warning.

Authorities final week scrapped a restricted variety of current quarantine exemptions for aircrew after two Cathay Pacific employees have been discovered to have breached medical surveillance rules, forcing all non-mainland China passenger flights to make use of closed-loop employees.

Like different members of the general public, aircrew who check optimistic additionally face being despatched to an isolation ward till they’re discharged – a course of that takes a minimal of 10 days however can doubtlessly be indefinite – after which they’re despatched to a quarantine facility for one more 14 days.

An air security skilled at a regional airline who has direct information of circumstances in Hong Kong informed Al Jazeera the federal government was forcing carriers to “push the boundaries” to maintain operations protected.

“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 security skilled mentioned.

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

The skilled mentioned that though he anticipated airways would refuse to fly in the event that they believed the dangers have been 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 mentioned of the town’s pandemic rules.  “The government I don’t think really cares, from what I have seen.”

Several worldwide airways together with Swiss International Air Lines, British Airways and Air Canada have suspended flights to Hong Kong in current weeks as a result of problem of complying with pandemic laws within the former British colony, which since its return to Chinese sovereignty has marketed itself as “Asia’s World City”.

On Wednesday, the Hong Kong authorities briefly banned flights from eight international locations together with the United States and United Kingdom, amid a group outbreak of the Omicron variant. On Thursday, Cathay Pacific mentioned it might lower cargo capability and passenger flights by about two-thirds and 80 %, respectively, till a minimum of the tip of the month following the bans and tightened quarantine rules, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported.

Pilots who spoke to Al Jazeera additionally described their frustration at being scapegoated for the federal government’s failure to keep up its goal of zero infections, which many medical consultants see as unrealistic and unsustainable.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam final week summoned the CEO and chairman of Cathay Pacific to precise “strong dissatisfaction” over the breaches by its employees. Local media have additionally taken goal on 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, got here beneath stress after China’s aviation regulator mentioned aircrew who joined pro-democracy demonstrations within the metropolis could be banned from mainland airspace, prompting then-CEO Rupert Hogg to warn employees they might be fired in the event that they supported or participated in “illegal protests”. Hogg shortly afterward resigned to take accountability 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,” mentioned the European cargo pilot. “That’s morale damaging. Plus we know if something happens, no one has our back.”

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