The U.S. Department of Transport (DOT) has threatened to ban Cathay Pacific from operating flights to and from the United States because of new quarantine rules for aircrew that require Hong Kong-based pilots and flight attendants to go into hotel isolation for 14-days whenever they arrive back in the territory.
U.S. regulators are, however, unhappy that the Hong Kong government ‘carved out’ a quarantine workaround for cargo-only flights to and from Anchorage, Alaska. Cathay Pacific operates a large cargo operation to Anchorage from where other airlines then pick up and drop off cargo for delivery across the United States and elsewhere.
In an order filed on Tuesday, the DOT said that this workaround disproportionately benefited Cathay Pacific because U.S.-based FedEx Express which has a crew base in Hong Kong has not been offered the same kind of workaround for its mainly intra-Asia cargo-only services.
Under the ‘closed loop’ policy, cargo pilots operating flights to Anchorage can skip quarantine on return to Hong Kong so long as they avoid all contact with the local population.
Before the quarantine rules were announced in late January, the U.S. government officially raised concerns with Hong Kong about the rumored exemption but the objections went unheeded. The very same day, the Hong Kong government officially announced the quarantine policy, including the controversial Anchorage workaround.
“This carve out effectively provides Cathay Pacific with the ability to continue those operations without impact from the new crew quarantine requirements,” the DOT order explains. “Meanwhile, FedEx’s Hong Kong-based crews serve only intra-Asia routings and therefore do not benefit from the Anchorage exception.”
FedEx Express has been forced to temporarily relocate around 180 Hong Kong-based pilots to San Francisco at significant expense in order to get around the quarantine rules according to the DOT order.
The Memphis-based delivery company has sought to agree a solution with the Hong Kong government but has been effectively stonewalled.
“Based on the facts before us, we find that Hong Kong has, over the objections of the U.S. Government, impaired the operating rights of U.S. carriers and denied them the fair and equal opportunity to exercise their operating rights under the Agreement and thus has acted contrary to Hong Kong obligations under Article 8, paragraph 1 of the Agreement,” the DOT ruling continued.
Cathay Pacific, along with other Hong Kong-based airlines Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express, have been given seven days to file their schedules with the DOT. The department will then determine whether any of these services should be suspended in order to maintain competitiveness under a bilateral air services agreement between Hong Kong and the United States.
As part of the evidence provided to the DOT, one FedEx Express pilot described his experience in one of Hong Kong’s notorious quarantine camps. The pilot was held in a small room in solitary confinement for six days before eventually being “extracted” by U.S. government officials.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently used by some of the biggest names in journalism.