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‘Toxic climate’: Hong Kong pilots buckle beneath ‘zero COVID’ rules

Hong Kong, China – When a Cathay Pacific pilot checked the corporate’s seniority record final month, he was shocked by what he noticed. Within six months, he had moved up about 400 locations – a sign that the identical variety of pilots had left the airline in the course of the interval.

The departures on the airline come amid mounting frustration with Hong Kong’s stringent “zero COVID” coverage, which has minimize off “Asia’s World City” from the world and raised questions on its future as an aviation hub.

Within Cathay Pacific, many workers really feel administration has not sufficiently pushed again on the Hong Kong authorities’s zero-tolerance pandemic technique, leaving them to bear the brunt of harsh pandemic rules that embrace among the lengthiest quarantines on this planet.

“It is always a very knee-jerk reaction to government regulations,” the pilot, who spoke on situation of anonymity, informed Al Jazeera. “That’s why morale has dropped quite significantly in the past few weeks.”

The pilot, who has labored on the airline for nearly a decade, mentioned the breaking level for a lot of employees got here after Cathay’s quick resolution final month to ship 130 pilots to a government-run quarantine facility after three folks contracted COVID-19 in Frankfurt, with out first conducting an investigation. At least 20 employees members submitted their resignations the identical day and extra are anticipated to comply with, the pilot mentioned.

Although it isn’t clear what number of pilots have left the airline as a result of metropolis’s stringent rules, the latest departures signify an uptick in turnover in contrast with earlier years. According to the airline’s figures, simply 130 pilots retired or resigned in 2018.

“They just agreed to do everything the government asked without really thinking it through,” mentioned the pilot, who has been grounded since July 2020 and has taken a 20 p.c pay minimize solely to see his estimated date of reinstatement repeatedly postponed.

In a press release launched on Wednesday, the Oneworld Cockpit Crew Coalition, a federation of pilot unions, expressed concern about “untenable working conditions” at Cathay Pacific for the reason that pandemic hit, together with prolonged durations in quarantine and separation from household.

“The pilots of Cathay Pacific face a hostile management,” mentioned John Sluys, chair of the coalition, which represents 30,000 pilots. “The result is a toxic industrial climate.”

2020 07 20T000000Z 8269767 Rc2Xwh9Rih0X Rtrmadp 3 Health Coronavirus HongkongHong Kong has reported simply 213 deaths in the course of the pandemic [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

To align with mainland China’s coverage, Hong Kong has caught stubbornly to a “zero COVID” technique that mandates as much as 21 days of quarantine for arrivals from abroad and loosely outlined “close contacts” of those that take a look at optimistic.

Residents who’re unfortunate sufficient to be doing lodge quarantine when one other visitor checks optimistic face a further 14 days, bringing their confinement to 35 days. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has defended the approach as mandatory to revive travel with the mainland and safeguard public well being within the metropolis, the place simply 213 folks have died from COVID-19.

In the final fortnight, Swiss International Air Lines and British Airways have suspended flights to town, citing the strict quarantine procedures for crew.

Cathay Pacific, nonetheless, has been unfailing in accommodating the federal government’s insurance policies, which some medical consultants have criticised as missing any scientific foundation.

Another Cathay Pacific pilot who spoke to Al Jazeera mentioned he might solely endure one spherical of the airline’s “closed-loop” system earlier than going again on momentary go away because it was “too mentally demanding”.

The closed-loop system requires crew members to stay in isolation all through three to 4 weeks of flying, adopted by one other prolonged interval of quarantine once they return to Hong Kong.

The pilot, who additionally spoke on situation of anonymity, had initially volunteered to fly beneath the coverage in anticipation of one other spherical of job cuts, following the layoff of 5,900 workers final yr.

“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 mentioned, including that some pilots have been on their fifth or sixth loop.

He is now doing prolonged responsibility turnaround flights, the place crew members work an extended shift with an exemption granted by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department.

‘Unrealistic in a global world’

A brand new cost-cutting measure that reduces the pay for some crew members on prolonged responsibility has additionally affected employees morale. Despite the vacation season, Cathay has needed to slash one-third of its passenger flights as a result of a scarcity of crew keen to work beneath the association.

“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,” mentioned 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 mentioned. “And it has made the lives of those in the aviation industry very difficult.”

A Cathay Pacific spokesperson mentioned that whereas the present surroundings was “challenging for everyone,” the airline supported Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic measures and noticed 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 mentioned, including that the corporate was supporting employees with time without work after closed-loop durations, monetary incentives and prolonged 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 latest closure of its abroad bases for pilots and regular attrition and retirements accounted for “the majority” within the seniority record.

381653810International travel has floor to a halt beneath Hong Kong’s strict ‘Zero COVID’ insurance policies [File: Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg]

John Grant, chief analyst at British consulting agency Midas Aviation, informed Al Jazeera that the federal government’s zero-tolerance insurance policies threatened Hong Kong’s standing, together with its place because 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 mentioned.

The exodus of pilots provides to present woes for Cathay Pacific, which embrace a worldwide scarcity of aviation professionals, Grant mentioned. But he predicted the influence of the Omicron variant can be restricted, because the airline is already working at lower than 30 p.c of its traditional capability.

“After all, how much worse can it really get for Cathay?” he mentioned.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at aerospace consultancy Teal Group, mentioned Hong Kong confronted deeper challenges than different aviation hubs that had seen big declines in visitors, resembling 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 mentioned.

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