Locked up in hotels: Hong Kong’s COVID-19 rules take a mental toll on Cathay pilots

Cathay Pacific planes park on the tarmac of Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China Oct. 24, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

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  • Three pilots fired last week for leaving hotel room during layover
  • Hong Kong maintains strict zero-COVID policy
  • Pilot layoffs have risen in recent weeks – Cathay

Nov. 26 (Reuters) – One of Asia’s largest airlines, Cathay Pacific, is facing an uprising by pilots who say Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules under its zero-COVID policy are endangering their mental health, leading to increasing stress and dismissal.

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (0293.HK) last week laid off three pilots who broke company rules by leaving their hotel rooms during a layover in Frankfurt and later tested positive for COVID-19.

The government responded by forcing more than 270 people, including schoolchildren connected to their families, into small quarters in a state quarantine camp.

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Some pilots declared themselves unfit to fly for their first scheduled duties upon release.

The extreme example of pandemic-related precautions under China’s zero-COVID policy highlights the difficult working conditions faced by Cathay pilots, all fully vaccinated, even as other Asian countries slowly reopen.

Cathay rivals, including Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd (QAN.AX) have begun abolishing the strict stopover policy, but the Hong Kong government is further tightening rules in line with the mainland, hoping to convince Beijing to allow cross-border travel.

“I don’t think I can keep this up,” a Cathay pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters. “Just the stress of potential quarantine from my family and friends is taking its toll.”

Several other current and recently departed Cathay pilots told Reuters that morale was low and that layoffs rose a year after many received their pay. permanently cut by as much as 58%.

Extreme stress is a major problem in an industry where any sign of psychological distress can make it difficult to find another job.

“What’s the risk if I tell them I’m a little stressed?” asked a pilot who has spent more than 200 nights locked up in hotel rooms outside Hong Kong since the start of the pandemic. ‘Will that affect my medical treatment? And then you leave here and they ask if you ever resigned for psychological reasons?’

The pilots also expressed frustration at the ambiguity of some government-imposed pandemic-related rules. For example, after returning to Hong Kong, pilots must avoid ‘unnecessary social contact’ for three weeks, but they are not given any free time to compensate.

Cathay acknowledged in a statement to Reuters that pilot layoffs have risen above normal levels since late October.

“Unfortunately, the Frankfurt incident affected current sentiment,” the airline said.

TIGHT ROSTERS

Hong Kong classifies many destinations, including the United States and Britain, as “high risk,” meaning Cathay pilots entering passengers from those places are subject to two weeks of hotel quarantine.

To man those flights, Cathay began volunteering in February with “closed-loop” rosters, which involved being locked up in hotel rooms with no access to fresh air or a gym for five consecutive weeks and then off for two weeks at home.

“I did it to make some money as the 50% pay cut (last year) made life much harder,” said a recently departed pilot who did two closed circuits. “There are currently people in their 5th or 6th closed loop.”

Cathay said on Thursday that some inbound flights would be canceled during the peak December season, indicating a lack of volunteers.

The airline said it acknowledged the pressure on its pilots and had fortnightly call-in sessions to share concerns and programs, such as a peer-based pilot assistance network and offering extended vacation days.

LEAVE HONG KONG

As conditions improve elsewhere in the world, other airlines, including Emirates and US cargo carrier Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc. (AAWW.O) are headhunters of Cathay pilots, those who spoke to Reuters said.

Emirates, which has launched a recruitment campaign for 600 pilots, declined to comment. Atlas did not respond to a request for comment.

The pilots spoke to Reuters said they expected more layoffs next year as temporary housing and training benefits expired.

Cathay said it would hire “several hundred” new pilots and restart the cadet program in the coming year.

Hong Kong’s Strict Rules Led FedEx Corp (FDX.N) to close its pilot base in the city last week, underscoring the area’s dwindling allure as a major logistics hub.

“I really feel for the people who are with Cathay,” said a FedEx pilot who recently left Hong Kong. “I am genuinely concerned about their mental health and how they are doing.”

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Reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Stephen Coates

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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