Cathay Pacific is slashing its already decimated schedule and is suspending all long-haul cargo flights with immediate effect because of even tougher pandemic border restrictions that were imposed on local airlines by the Hong Kong government on Friday.
Hong Kong will herald in the New Year increasingly cut off from the outside world as the Chinese territory desperately tries to keep out the Omicron variant as it doggedly pursues its ‘COVID Zero’ strategy that aligns with the mainland.
The stricter border rules mean there are now no exemptions for local aircrew to bypass hotel quarantine whenever they return to Hong Kong from an international non-mainland destination. Cargo pilots and other crew operating on designated freighter-only flights were previously allowed to isolate at home for three days pending results of mandatory virus tests.
The government scrubbed that exemption after four aircrew tested positive for the virus in the days following their return to the city. One of the crew members infected his father after breaking quarantine to go out for dinner with his family at a busy restaurant. A second local man who was sat at another table was also infected.
The crew member was infected with Omicron, marking the first time the highly transmissible variant has evaded border restrictions and got into Hong Kong. A second infected crew member visited a community testing centre and then immediately went to three bars while infectious.
Community transmission of COVID-19 is incredibly rare in Hong Kong and these latest cases are the first such time that the virus has been detected outside border cases since October.
Hong Kong is now on high alert as it attempts to stamp out the flames of an Omicron outbreak.
After summoning Cathay Pacific chief executive Augustus Tang for a dressing down, the Hong Kong government announced it would require all local aircrew to undergo seven days of mandatory hotel quarantine whenever they return from an international destination.
Cathay Pacific said it had no other option but to suspend cargo flights for at least the next seven days as it tries to secure a dwindling supply of quarantine hotel rooms. The airline must now also convince more crew members to subject themselves to frequent and extended bouts of quarantine under the territory’s ‘closed loop’ working system.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said she expected aircrew to support the territory by continuing to fly for Cathay Pacific but the airline is already reeling from an exodus of expat pilots who can no longer face the constant cycle of quarantine.
In the meantime, the government announced plans for additional charter flights to fight an impending logistics crunch.
“The latest tightening of aircrew quarantine restrictions continues to constrain our ability to operate flights as planned,” Cathay Pacific said in an announcement posted on its website.
“We are making further significant changes to our flight schedule, including cancellations of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong from now to tentatively the first quarter of 2022. We intend to operate a skeleton passenger flight schedule in January.”
An earlier version of this story said the crew members involved were pilots. Cathay Pacific has since clarified that the aircrew involved were cabin crew.
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.