Coronavirus: Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific asks 27,000 staff to take unpaid leave

Cathay Pacific had said it plans to cut about 30 per cent of capacity over the next two months, including about 90 per cent of flights to mainland China. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific is asking its 27,000 employees to take up to three weeks of unpaid leave, chief executive officer Augustus Tang said on Wednesday (Feb 5), as the airline faces a crisis in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak.

"I am hoping all of you will participate, from our front-line employees to our senior leaders, and to share in our current challenges," Mr Tang said in a video message posted online.

The request lays bare desperate times at Cathay Pacific, which was hammered last year by months of political chaos and protests in Hong Kong and has now been hurt further by the fallout from the virus outbreak.

The coronavirus, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, spread over the Chinese New Year holiday, which would normally be one of the busiest times for regional airlines.

Instead dozens of international carriers have reduced or suspended flights to China in a bid to halt the pathogen's spread and as passenger numbers fall off a cliff.

In his video message to employees, Mr Tang warned Cathay Pacific was experiencing "one of the most difficult Chinese New Year holidays we have ever had" because of the virus.

"And we don't know how long it will last," he added. "With such an uncertain outlook, preserving our cash is now the key to protecting our business."

He announced a series of measures to tackle the crisis, including asking staff to voluntarily take unpaid leave.

"I realise this is difficult to hear. And we may need to take further steps ahead. But by supporting the special leave scheme, you will be helping at our time of need," he told staff.

He also asked suppliers to reduce their prices and said the airline would make short-term adjustments to its capacity, including an already announced move to reduce flights to the Chinese mainland by 90 per cent. The carrier plans to cut about 30 per cent of capacity over the next two months, Reuters reported.

It has already been hard hit by months of anti-government protests in the city that have put a significant dent in its revenue as people avoid the Asian financial hub.

As of Wednesday, the coronavirus, which is thought to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has claimed almost 500 lives and infected more than 24,500 people worldwide.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.