Locked in hotels: Hong Kong’s COVID-19 rules take mental toll on Cathay pilots

Cathay Pacific planes park on the tarmac at Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China, October 24, 2020. REUTERS/Tyron Seo/ File photo

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  • Three pilots were fired last week for leaving a hotel room on layover
  • Hong Kong maintains strict non-proliferation policy
  • Pilot resignations have skyrocketed in recent weeks Cathay

(Reuters) – One of Asia’s largest airlines, Cathay Pacific, is facing a rebellion from pilots who say Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules under non-coronavirus policies threaten their mental health, leading to increased stress and resignations.

Cathay Pacific Airways Limited (0293.HK) last week fired three pilots who violated airline rules by leaving their hotel rooms during a layover in Frankfurt and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

The government responded by forcing more than 270 people, including school children attached to their families, to small places in the government quarantine camp.

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Some pilots declared themselves ineligible to fly to perform their listed duties upon their release.

An extreme example of pandemic-related precautions under China’s no-coronavirus policy highlights the difficult working conditions faced by Cathay pilots, all fully vaccinated, even as other Asian countries slowly reopen.

Cathay’s rivals including Australia’s Qantas Airways Limited (QAN.AX) have begun scrapping strict stop-over policies but the Hong Kong government is tightening rules further in line with the mainland, hoping to persuade Beijing to allow cross-border travel.

“I don’t think I can continue with this,” a pilot from Cathay, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. “Just the stress of a potential quarantine for my family and friends is having a huge impact.”

Several current and recently departing Cathay pilots told Reuters that morale was low and resignations were rising, a year after many permanently cut salaries by as much as 58 percent.

Severe stress is an important issue in an industry where any sign of psychological problems can make it difficult to get another job.

“What are the risks if I tell them I’m a little nervous?” asked the pilot, who has spent more than 200 nights in hotel rooms away from Hong Kong since the pandemic began. “Does that affect my doctor? And then you leave here and they ask, have you ever been excluded for psychological reasons?”

The pilots also expressed frustration with the ambiguity of some of the rules related to the pandemic imposed by the government. For example, pilots are required to avoid “non-essential social contact” for three weeks after their return to Hong Kong, but are not given leave to compensate.

Cathy admitted to Reuters in a statement that the resignations of pilots have increased from normal levels since the end of October.

“Unfortunately, the accident in Frankfurt has affected current sentiment,” the company said.

difficult lists

Hong Kong classifies several destinations including the US and Britain as “high risk”, meaning Cathay pilots flying with passengers arriving from those places are subject to a two-week hotel quarantine.

For employees on those trips, Cathy began running “closed-loop” rosters on a volunteer basis in February, booking five straight weeks of hotel rooms with no fresh air or gym, then two weeks off at home.

“I did it to earn some money, because the 50% pay cut (last year) made life more difficult,” said a recently departed pilot who did two closed loops. “There are people currently in the fifth or sixth closed loop.”

Cathay said Thursday that some domestic flights will be canceled during the peak demand season in December, indicating a shortage of volunteers.

The airline said it recognized the pressure on its pilots and held call sessions every two weeks to share concerns and programs such as a peer-based pilot assistance network as well as offer extended leave of absence.

Leaving Hong Kong

As conditions improve elsewhere in the world, other airlines, including Emirates and US freighter Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Inc (AAWW.O), are Cathay pilots, those who spoke to Reuters said.

Emirates Airlines, which has launched a campaign to hire 600 pilots, declined to comment. Atlas did not respond to a request for comment.

The pilots Reuters spoke to said they expect more resignations next year when housing and transitional education benefits expire.

Cathy said it will hire “several hundred” new pilots and restart its cadet program next year.

Strict rules in Hong Kong led FedEx Corp (FDX.N) to shutter its test base in the city last week, underscoring the area’s grim allure as a major logistics hub.

“I really feel, really feel for the people in Cathay,” said the FedEx pilot who left Hong Kong recently. “I’m really concerned about their mental health and how they are.”

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Additional reporting by Jamie Fried in Sydney; Editing by Myung Kim and Stephen Coates

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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