Cathay Pacific accused its pilots of going slow on the runway. The union argues it’s due to ‘poor pilot morale’

Cathay Pacific finally returned to an operating profit in 2022, following years of losses from Hong Kong's tough COVID policies.
Lam Yik—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you feel like it’s taking a while for your plane to take off, it may be a form of protest from your pilot. 

Cathay Pacific, in an internal memo sent to its staff in April, and seen by the South China Morning Post, said that both the airline and Hong Kong’s international airport had noticed that Cathay airplanes were “taxiing at a considerably slower speed than other operators.”

In its memo, the airline said it would follow up with pilots taxiing at below average speeds, and “then take any further action that may be required.”

Cathay Pacific did not immediately respond to Fortune’s request for comment. A spokesperson from the airline told the South China Morning Post that it “works closely with airport authorities in Hong Kong and markets that we operate,” and that “we pride ourselves on our high levels of proficiency and operational standards.”

The airline’s pilots feel differently. On Sunday, the union representing the city’s pilots argued that the slowdown is a case of poor contracts. 

Cathay’s pilot salaries are calculated by flight time—which includes taxiing—under contracts revised in 2020, notes the South China Morning Post. The airline gave all its pilots and staff a week to accept contracts with slashed pay and benefits in 2020, or leave the company. The vast majority accepted.

Paul Weatherilt, chair of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association and a former Cathay pilot, told local newspaper The Standard that “if we are able to operate more efficiently and complete the flight in a lower block time than scheduled, we are paid for the shorter period.”

Weatherilt characterized the slowdown as an issue of “poor pilot morale” in comments to the South China Morning Post, claiming that pilots are paid 40% less than what they were paid pre-pandemic.

The union chair also warned that Cathay Pacific had fewer than half the pilots it will need to restore pre-pandemic capacity. 

Last week, Cathay Pacific CEO Ronald Lam told shareholders that the airline continues to target 70% of pre-pandemic capacity by the end of the year, and that airfares would likely remain elevated until end-2024. Lam admitted labor shortages were an issue for the airline, and revealed the airline would ask cadet pilots to work with customers at Hong Kong’s airport. 

Pandemic losses

Hong Kong’s flagship airline reported an operating profit of $452 million in 2022, following years of pandemic-era isolation for the semi-autonomous Chinese city. (The airline still reported a net loss of $912 million to ordinary shareholders for the year, due to losses at Air China, where Cathay owns an 18% stake).

It’s a significant improvement from the $2.8 billion loss the airline reported in 2020.

Hong Kong had one of the world’s toughest sets of travel restrictions during the pandemic, at times requiring as much as three weeks of quarantine in a designated hotel. The city also imposed snap flight bans on routes that carried COVID-positive passengers, leading many airlines to significantly scale back their flights to the international financial hub.

The rules were particularly tough on flight crew, who were forced to fly under a “closed-loop” system that kept them working for three weeks, then spend weeks in hotel quarantine before returning home. Many pilots resigned, fed up with relatively low pay and tough working conditions. 

The city rolled back many of its restrictions throughout the latter half of 2022, removing quarantine entirely in September. The city is now launching a campaign, including an offer of half a million free flight tickets, to attract visitors back to the city. 

Cathay Pacific carried 1.32 million passengers in March, which the airline notes is a 4200% increase from the same period in 2022.

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