Britain’s aviation regulator launched an internal probe into Hong Kong’s pandemic quarantine rules after pilots and cabin crew at British Airways were imprisoned in a notorious government-run quarantine facility on several occasions, new documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request reveal.
British Airways eventually decided that the risk of more crew being “incarcerated” in the Penny’s Bay quarantine camp was so high that the airline pulled all flights to the Chinese territory in November 2021. The airline doesn’t plan to return to Hong Kong until March at the earliest.
A representative for British Airways wrote to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) raising concerns about the effects on crew mental health after two separate sets of crew were sent to the camp in quick succession.
British Airways wrote to the CAA shortly after the first incident and explained the “very basic provisions for comfort” that crew were forced to endure in Penny’s Bay. Crew members who tested negative on multiple occasions could still face a 21-day sentence in the quarantine facilities if any of their colleagues returned a positive COVID-19 test result on arrival in Hong Kong.
“There are concerns also around the mental health of the crew who are holed up at the facility for an extended period,” the letter obtained by Al Jazeera continued.
“Significant diplomatic activity is required to get the crew released from the facility prior to the expiry of the 21‐day quarantine period and, additionally, released crew are not permitted to leave HKG on passenger services.
British Airways complained that it was costing the carrier more money to return crew to Britain on cargo-only flights.
“We have had to operate additional freight‐only flights to repatriate our crew. With the recent tightening of the immigration policy, the continued viability of the crew stop in HKG has been brought into question, both in terms of duty of care and from the perspective of short‐notice operational disruption.”
In one internal email, a CAA official wrote: “Have we had any contacts with HKG regarding the ‘incarceration’ of aircrew as described by BA? Do we have any channels we can explore? The mental well being is very real.”
Responding to a request by British Airways to operate its Hong Kong services as a turnaround with the same flight the official wrote: “Driving operators (airlines) to utilise extended FTL (Flight Time Limitations) to avoid lay overs is in nobodies interest”.
Another official at the CAA wrote: “Agree that the situation sounds pretty horrendous for crew. Probably not helped by the fact that the new South African (Omicron) variant has been found in HKG. It is not a subject we have engaged in – like in the UK would likely involved different people/departments. I know it has safety implications, but that kind of policy is determined elsewhere.”
“I would suggest that in the first instance BA talks to the relevant people in DfT (Department for Transport) who deal with multi-bi-lateral crew concerns”.
A spokesperson for the CAA said it wouldn’t be “appropriate” to comment on whether Hong Kong’s pandemic quarantine rules actually posed air safety concerns but the agency did eventually grant an exemption from Flight Time Limitation rules.
Normally, aircrew must be provided with a minimum amount of rest in the destination following a long-haul flight but the exemption allowed BA to bring its crew straight back home without a rest “subject to a safety case being accepted”.
British Airways still went ahead and cancelled its flights saying the decision was based on balancing “the need to comply with local regulations, ensure the safety and wellbeing of our teams while providing a consistent service for our customers”.
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.