HK's sudden rush to book flights jams airlines' websites; airfares forecast to soar

In addition to ending hotel quarantine, Hong Kong will do away with the requirement for a pre-flight PCR test. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Cathay Pacific Airways' website and that of its low-cost unit buckled under a rush of flight searches Friday, as the Hong Kong government announced that mandatory quarantine and other pandemic travel restrictions will be scrapped next week.

The rush comes, even as airfares are forecast to soar, at least in the early weeks.

"We are currently experiencing high traffic on our website," Cathay said. "We have set up a virtual waiting room to better manage customer traffic to our site. You are in a queue at the moment, but you'll be put through soon."

The airline advised visitors to keep the web page open, telling them they would have 30 minutes to book a ticket after entering the site.

Earlier Friday, Cathay's budget unit HK Express was also inundated with flight searches as wannabe travellers rushed to take advantage of the easing of pandemic travel restrictions across parts of Asia.

"Our website is busy due to the high traffic, which may cause longer time in flight search, booking or receiving itinerary e-mails," HK Express said in a pop-up message on the site.

A spokeswoman for the airline said the notice was posted after Japan announced it would abolish Covid-19 border controls.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in New York on Thursday that Japan will end its cap on daily arrivals and allow tourists to enter without visas from Oct 11.

Japan is typically HK Express' biggest market. Pre-pandemic, the carrier served 14 airports across the country.

In addition to ending hotel quarantine, Hong Kong will do away with the requirement for a pre-flight PCR test. Travellers will be allowed to go home or to their hotel after arrival, but they will be banned from venues such as bars and restaurants for three days. 

Cathay, which supplies about 45 per cent of plane seats in and out of Hong Kong, previously warned it could only increase flights to one-third of pre-Covid-19 levels by the end of the year, hobbled by a lack of aircraft and the need to train new pilots and staff. 

Foreign carriers have gutted schedules or stopped flying to the city altogether. In the first eight months of 2022, Hong Kong International Airport handled just 3.4 per cent of passengers that it did before Covid-19, and 30 per cent of flights.

Travellers face paying significantly higher prices for available tickets. They will need to stump up HK$102,000 (S$18,517) for a return business-class flight to Los Angeles in early October, more than double the usual fare.

A return economy-class seat to London departing Oct 3 will cost HK$25,600 (S$4,647), as much as triple regular prices. 

“Demand and supply face a huge imbalance, but once we know there is a clear timeline and a roadmap, airlines will assess their own decisions and commercial judgments,” said Ms Yolanda Yu, vice-chair of the Board of Airline Representatives of Hong Kong, which represents more than 70 carriers flying in and out of the city.

“Whether Hong Kong is viable to increase capacity is yet to be seen,” she said.

Typically, it takes airlines six to nine months to organise flight schedules.

Cathay said it plans to add more than 200 pairs of regional and long-haul passenger flights in October, including daily flights to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

“We are fully committed to rebuilding the connectivity of the Hong Kong aviation hub,” the airline said in a statement. “While we will continue to add back more flights as quickly as is feasible, it will take time to rebuild our capacity gradually.” BLOOMBERG

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