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Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific cancels flights as seasonal illnesses affect pilots, union says staff shortage impacts operations

by Staff

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways has cancelled a number of flights since mid-December, citing seasonal illnesses affecting pilots, while a union argues the issue stems from staff shortages resulting from pandemic-related layoffs.

The airline on Friday apologised to affected passengers and pledged to minimise disruptions, as it insisted its overall operations remained “normal”.

“Cathay Pacific experienced higher than anticipated pilot absence caused by seasonal illness on certain days in December. Our operations remain normal overall, with a marked increase in the number of flights operated over the holiday peak season,” it said.

“We have chosen to proactively cancel a small number of flights in order to ensure the successful delivery of our overall services. The total number of cancellations since mid-December is less than 1 per cent of all passenger flights operated.”

Cathay Pacific has 2,532 pilots as of this month compared with 3,885 in the fourth quarter of 2019. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

The carrier also pledged to reduce disruptions caused by the “exceptional period”.

The airline has 2,532 pilots as of this month compared with 3,885 in the fourth quarter of 2019, just before the pandemic, according to the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, which represents Cathay pilots.

“This is what happens when you don’t have enough pilots. There will always be some illness among crew, but this doesn’t mean flights have to be cancelled,” said Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the union.

“A year into the recovery and the airline’s passenger operation still has only 52 per cent of the captains and first officers that it had pre-pandemic.”

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He added that while many other airlines had fully recovered, Cathay’s Pacific’s recovery had “stalled”, warning that it would take years to complete training which could hamper the city’s return to global aviation hub status.

As worldwide travel was brought to a standstill amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the city imposed stringent flight restrictions, the carrier experienced a staggering 99 per cent decline in daily passenger numbers.

In October 2020, Cathay announced Hong Kong’s biggest mass lay-offs in three decades, cutting 5,300 jobs locally and terminating its regional airline in a desperate restructuring bid to survive the pandemic.

About 4,000 cabin crew, 600 pilots, and 700 ground staff and office workers were made redundant in the HK$2.2 billion restructuring. The remaining cabin crew and pilots were given cost-saving contracts.

The union earlier this month said training, recruiting and retaining pilots had been challenging for the airline, which had only added 107 pilots to its workforce so far this year.

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It warned that it might take up to four years to reach the number of pilots it had before the pandemic.

Cathay is on a massive recruitment drive, with plans to hire another 5,000 members of staff next year on top of the 4,000 this year.

The airline said in a traffic report last month that its priority next year was rebuilding its flights, but constraints included recruiting and training staff and supply chain challenges.

Cathay Pacific and its budget carrier HK Express aim to fully restore pre-pandemic passenger capacity by the end of 2024.

The carrier is expected to announce its first annual profit since 2019 after recording better performance in the second half of the year compared with the first due to increased ticket prices and strong travel demand.

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