Hong Kong’s flagship airline struggles to keep flying as city slashes COVID quarantine exemptions for local aircrew

December 30, 2021, 1:44 PM UTC

Cathay Pacific—Hong Kong’s flagship airline—can’t catch a break.

Late Wednesday, the South China Morning Post reported that airlines flying into Hong Kong were told that their flight crew on non–mainland China flights would have to follow the same quarantine procedures as all other incoming travelers. 

The new rules throw a wrench into the operational plans for airlines flying into Hong Kong, which are now forced to find quarantine hotel rooms—already in short supply as Hong Kong residents return overseas from their holidays—for their aircrews. 

In a statement published on the Cathay Pacific website on Thursday morning, the airline said that “the latest tightening of aircrew quarantine restrictions continues to constrain our ability to operate flights as planned,” and it was considering “cancellations of passenger flights to and from Hong Kong from now to tentatively the first quarter of 2022.”

A Cathay spokesperson told Fortune that the airline was working with affected customers to help them make alternative flight arrangements.

Hard quarantine

Hong Kong’s system of inbound quarantine is one of the world’s strictest as the city pursues an aggressive COVID-zero strategy. Arriving travelers have to stay in a quarantine hotel for at least two weeks, and visitors from a handful of countries—including the U.K. and the U.S.—must quarantine for four days in a government facility, in addition to 17 days at a quarantine hotel.

Under some circumstances, local aircrew were exempt from these strict requirements, yet still were subject to constrained movement upon arriving in Hong Kong. Aircrew on “turnaround” flights—when the crew never step foot off the plane—were allowed to quarantine at home, but could leave the house only for mandated COVID testing. 

However, the spread of the Omicron variant has pushed Hong Kong’s government to tighten up even these limited exemptions. On Tuesday, crew on cargo flights were told that they had to spend their three days of quarantine in a designated hotel, rather than at home. 

Two Cathay flight crew who later tested positive for Omicron were also suspected to have broken quarantine restrictions, leaving their homes for activities other than getting tested. 

Unique harm

Foreign airlines have been able to manage the effect of Hong Kong’s harsh quarantine rules to some extent. Flight crew that are not entering the community can isolate in a hotel room before their next flight (though they are still at risk of being sent to quarantine if a colleague tests positive upon arrival in Hong Kong).

Yet local aircrew—like those that work for Cathay Pacific—eventually have to reenter the community, and thus go through quarantine. Cathay has struggled to balance keeping planes flying with the welfare of its cabin crew. The airline has tried to run a closed loop system, in which aircrew fly for three weeks (and must undergo strict isolation procedures overseas), then undergo hotel quarantine in Hong Kong for two weeks before being allowed to return home. 

The closed-loop system has proven unpopular with Cathay staff, and the airline has even considered moving pilots to either the United States or Dubai in order to save crew members from quarantine.

Hong Kong also automatically bans flight routes for two weeks if four COVID cases are caught within seven days of landing. Cathay flights from major airports like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and London have already been banned under the new rules. 

Cathay has been able to rely on cargo traffic to make up the shortfall from dwindling passenger traffic. Yet Hong Kong’s new rules on cargo aircrew now threaten to severely constrain even that revenue source. 

Between quarantine rules and strict flight bans, Cathay Pacific’s flight schedule has now dwindled to almost nothing. In early December, Cathay was carrying only around 7% of the passengers it did before the pandemic—a number that’s sure to fall even further.

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