Hong Kong needs 2 to 4 years to reclaim status as aviation hub, Cathay Pacific pilots’ union warns as it cites manpower shortfall

The pilot union of Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways has warned that the city would require two to four years to reclaim its status as a global aviation hub, citing manpower levels at only two-thirds of the pre-pandemic mark.

The forecast was more pessimistic than that of Cathay Pacific, which said last November it aimed to return to pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity by the end of 2024. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also said in July it expected the city to reach pre-Covid passenger levels by the end of next year.

In a reply to the Post, Cathay Pacific dismissed the figures provided by the union and stressed it was on track to rebuild, pointing out it had achieved all capacity targets.

But chairman of the The Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association (HKAOA) Paul Weatherilt on Thursday night said it was impossible to reach the goal by next year due to pilot shortfalls and a training backlog.

Most of the shortfall among Cathay pilots involves captains and first officers. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

“The company say that they’re going to make a recovery by the end of 2024. But if you look at those pilot numbers, it’s impossible. They cannot possibly recruit and train pilots to recover the shortfalls,” Weatherilt argued.

The union revealed that the number of Cathay pilots shrank 36 per cent from 3,885 in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 2,481 this month. Most of the shortage involves captains and first officers.

A recruitment drive by Cathay from January to October resulted in a net increase of 56 pilots, with 136 captains joining while 80 first officers and second officers departed.

Weatherilt said most of the new captains were promoted first officers and about 40 of them were captains who had rejoined the company.

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In a statement issued on Thursday night, the association said: “Because of the time it takes to train pilots, the HKAOA estimates that a recovery to pre-pandemic levels, to simply regain Hong Kong’s position as a global aviation hub, will take between two and four years.”

Weatherilt noted the city could gain back its status more quickly by inviting other airlines to fly in and out of Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong’s status as an aviation hub has really always been very closely related to Cathay because of its privileged position. But it has increased … pilot capacity by a very small amount in 2023. It still has many more experienced pilots to replace captains and first officers,” he said.

“The one way it can do this is to go out and recruit those Hong Kong pilots who used to work for Cathay Pacific and increase the terms and conditions offered. There are probably about 1,000 of them around. They can be trained much more quickly,” Weatherilt added.

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In a reply to a Post inquiry on Friday, Cathay clarified that the information and data from HKAOA were neither comprehensive nor accurate.

“To date, the Cathay Group has achieved all the capacity targets we have set out to meet as part of our rebuild and we are on track to reach 70 per cent of our pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity levels by the end of 2023,” a company spokesman said.

With worldwide travel earlier crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and Hong Kong imposing strict flight curbs, Cathay had suffered a staggering 99 per cent decline in its daily passenger numbers.

In October 2020, the airline announced Hong Kong’s biggest mass lay-offs in three decades, axing 5,300 jobs in the city and closing its regional airline in a desperate restructuring attempt to survive the pandemic.

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About 4,000 cabin crew, 600 pilots, and 700 ground staff and office workers were told they would be made redundant in a HK$2.2 billion (US$284 million) restructuring.

The remaining cabin crew and pilots were presented with cost-saving contracts.

In August, the airline reported a net profit of HK$4.26 billion for the first half of 2023, its first in three years as it scrambles to shake off the pandemic pall.

The Post has approached the Airport Authority for comment.

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