Hundreds of Cathay Pacific pilots and cabin crew, as well as some of their families, will be detained against their will at the notorious Penny’s Bay quarantine facility in Hong Kong because they had the misfortune to spend time in Frankfurt in the last couple of weeks.
Some of the affected crew members were already in a so-called ‘closed loop’ isolation period but rather than serving out their quarantine in a hotel and being allowed to go to work, they have been whisked into a government-run quarantine camp capable of holding thousands of detainees.
The mass detention of Cathay Pacific pilots and cabin crew came about after three freighter pilots for the airline tested positive for COVID-19 in quick succession after staying in the same layover hotel near Frankfurt, Germany.
The pilots managed to become infected despite being locked down in their hotel rooms. They have told investigators that they didn’t leave their rooms during their layover and weren’t involved in any gatherings according to Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection.
With investigators still trying to work out how the pilots became infected and whether other crew members might also have been exposed to COVID-19 at the hotel, government officials said they had made the decision “for prudence’s sake” to detain every crew member who had stayed at the hotel since November 1.
Most of the crew members have been sent to the purpose-built Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre, a sprawling camp on Lantau Island with a total of 3,500 small units. The camp, made up of container like units, provides the bulk of Hong Kong’s government-run quarantine space and has been recently used to house poorly treated domestic workers.
All of the units provide individual accommodation and are air-conditioned but there is little room and the furnishings are sparse. Foreign aircrew who have been detained at the camp say that Wi-Fi rarely works and hot water isn’t always in ample supply.
In the last month, a group of Virgin Atlantic crew were held at the facility after a pilot tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival in Hong Kong. The airline sought the help of the British government who managed to secure the release of the crew who were swiftly flown home.
The same type of rescue efforts by international governments helped secure the release of several COVID negative Air Canada pilots and a FedEx Express pilot who were held at Penny’s Bay.
There is no such rescue coming for the Cathay Pacific aircrew.
In a series of posts shared to Instagram, a Dutch pilot who works for Cathay Pacific complained about the state of the accommodation. Going only by her first name, Eva said she had been sent to the camp with just one small bag of belongings for the entire quarantine period.
Not everyone, though, has bad words to say about the facility. In an official promo video for Penny’s Bay, Claire Frost said the government had done a “really good job”.
“All the basic necessities were catered for. The three meals a day. If we needed extra toiletries we just rang them,” Frost, who was held at the centre with her two children last year said. “It’s perfectly sufficient.”
Dr Kong Che-wan, senior medical and health officer admits though that detainees are likely to be anxious when they first arrive. Workers at an onsite call centre make contact with detainees every day to assess their needs, while those held at the facility can Whatsapp message for extra snacks.
In an internal memo, however, Cathay Pacific recognised the quarantine experience would be”very difficult” for many crew members.
“I understand this is difficult news for us all to grasp and these recent cases are unfortunate for our crew community,” the memo read. “This is indeed very difficult for everyone impacted. Our Service Excellence team has reached out to each crew member impacted with as much clarity as possible and we will continue to provide our support wherever needed”.
Crew members who were in Frankfurt at the time the quarantine order was signed will be flown back to Hong Kong and sent straightaway to Penny’s Bay or another government-run quarantine facility, while crew members who have been in Frankfurt but are now in another country have been ordered to isolate in their hotel rooms for 21-days.
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 relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.