Cathay Pacific offers $5,000 bonuses to pilots to keep flying

Cathay Pacific is operating at just 2 per cent of pre-pandemic passenger capacity. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Cathay Pacific Airways is offering bonuses of up to HK$29,000 (S$5,000) to pilots willing to endure Hong Kong's strict quarantine regime, in a bid to get more planes in the air.

Captains who fly two so-called closed loop flights will get a HK$22,000 bonus, rising to HK$29,000 for four or more closed loops, according to a staff memo seen by Bloomberg News and confirmed by the airline's press office.

First officers will get HK$17,000 for two loops and HK$24,000 for four or more.

Closed-loop flights involve aircrew operating flights for three to four weeks non-stop, staying in hotel isolation between flights and then spending up to two weeks in quarantine at the end of their deployment before being allowed to return home.

The onerous conditions and long absences from family and friends have made it difficult for Cathay to adequately staff and operate its services.

Cathay said in a statement Wednesday (Jan 19) that for pilots signing up for closed-loop rosters, "we have added opportunities to have more time away from flying after completing their loops, as well as updating their remuneration to account for changes in our schedule and operation."

"Encouraging more pilots to sign up to closed loop rosters will allow us to spread the flying tasks across more pilots while continuing to keep Hong Kong connected to the world," it added. 

Cathay Pacific has lurched from the crisis of the 2019 pro-democracy protests that triggered a management overhaul, to the two-year pandemic that has crippled the carrier.

Without a domestic market to fall back on and Hong Kong largely isolated from the rest of the world by its strict Covid-Zero policy, the airline has had to rely on a HK$39 billion (S$6.76 billion) government bailout and 6,000 jobs cuts to survive.

The carrier is operating at just 2 per cent of pre-pandemic passenger capacity and 20 per cent of pre-Covid-19 cargo capacity - the lowest level at any time since the start of the pandemic.

Airline crew members in the Asian financial hub have also come under close scrutiny after being blamed for an outbreak of the Omicron variant in the city, which is hewing to a strict Covid-19-zero policy.

Two former Cathay Pacific workers were arrested earlier this week for breaking pandemic rules, and face fines and six months in jail if convicted.

Hong Kong's adherence to a Covid-19-zero strategy of trying to wipe out all coronavirus cases at any cost has left it increasingly isolated, as other parts of the world start to live alongside Covid-19 and shun harsh curbs like mandatory quarantines and lockdowns.

The government is focused on reopening the border with mainland China, the last significant Covid-19-zero holdout after countries like Singapore and Australia pivoted to viewing the virus as endemic.

The city on Tuesday (Jan 18) ordered the culling of thousands of hamsters, rabbits and chinchillas after an outbreak of the Delta variant was traced to a pet shop, where nearly a dozen hamsters imported from the Netherlands were found to be infected with Covid-19.

According to an American Chamber of Commerce survey, Hong Kong’s stringent travel restrictions are now the biggest challenge for US businesses in the city.

The strict quarantine rules for travellers make it difficult for head offices to operate, with about 44 per cent of respondents saying business was affected by significant disruption.

More than 30 per cent of those surveyed said they’d had to delay new investments, while 30 per cent struggled to fill senior executive roles. 

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