Cathay’s pilot exodus continues as pandemic restrictions hit morale

A Cathay Pacific pilot had been with the airline for more than five years and planned a long career.

But at the end of September he left the Hong Kong airline, packed his bags and went to Australia to get a lower-paying job at a flight academy.

Cathay and its long-suffering pilots have been major victims of the pandemic as severe job cuts and the punishment of Covid-19 restrictions have disrupted operations and hurt profits.

“I just needed a break from everything. . . I don’t want to work for Cathay anymore,” said the pilot, who asked not to be named. He added that the constant Covid testing and restrictions had affected his morale, leaving him tired and stressed.

Working conditions were badly affected when Cathay laid off 8,500 people, nearly a quarter of its workforce, at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

A year later, a flood of pilot layoffs followed due to anger at salary cuts of up to 60 percent and anger at tough Covid 19 borders.

An employee speaks to applicants during a Cathay Pacific flight attendant recruitment event
A Cathay Pacific recruitment event in Hong Kong last month © Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

By the third quarter of this year, the Pilots workforce had fallen to a total of 2,412, more than a quarter down from 2019, according to an internal Financial Times document, with many of Cathay’s most senior employees – captains and first officers – among those who have left . According to the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, the pilots’ union, between 30 and 50 pilots still resign each month.

Much of the dissatisfaction stems from “closed” rosters, which saw multiple flights completed at intervals of up to four weeks without being allowed home, followed by mandatory hotel quarantines.

That meant not seeing friends or family for up to seven weeks. In total, employees spent 73,000 nights in quarantine last year, the airline said.

“They’re in total darkness for five, six days,” said another pilot who has flown with the airline for more than 10 years and asked not to be named. “You sleep all day American time and up all night Hong Kong time,” he added, referring to his North American travels.

Cathay Pacific employees walk through the arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport
Cathay Pacific employees walk through the arrivals hall of Hong Kong International Airport © Li Zhihua/China News Service/Getty Images

Widespread discontent among pilots meant other airlines, including Qantas and Qatar Airways, were poaching them, said Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the HKAOA pilots’ union.

The airline plans to hire more than 700 pilots and 2,000 cabin crew over the next year. His first cabin crew recruitment campaign in October received more than 1,000 applications for a flight attendant, despite a monthly base salary of HK$9,100 (US$1,160), below pre-pandemic levels.

Cathay said it has enough pilots and cabin crew to support operations and that the “goal is to protect as many jobs as possible while meeting our responsibilities to the Hong Kong aviation hub and our customers.”

Last month, the company also announced it would add more than 500,000 seats and about 700 and 1,200 new flights, respectively, in November and December, mostly to Japan and the UK.

In addition, the airline has brought back part of its fleet that has been parked in aircraft storage facilities in the deserts of Australia during the pandemic.

It hopes to reach a third of its pre-pandemic passenger capacity by the end of the year, much less than rivals like Singapore Airlines, which expect to reach over 80 per cent of their pre-Covid levels by December.

Cathay’s chief customer and commercial officer Ronald Lam, who will take over the helm in January, told the FT last month that it would take another two years — late 2024 or early 2025 — to get back to pre-pandemic capacity .

The airline, known for its premium lounges and loyalty programs, is also facing questions about its identity following the cost cuts.

Looking for new revenue streams after suffering during the pandemic, it wanted to reposition itself as a premium travel lifestyle brand with a focus on e-commerce.

“You’ve got enough work to do when you’re trying to run an airline and just be a good transportation brand,” said a former executive.

“Running a premium lifestyle brand is difficult. It’s really, really hard. . . Right now people will be flying in large numbers again.”

In the end, the airline was looking for ways to save money as it tried to reduce the number of cabin crew members on each flight and cut the cost of some inflight services like drinks offered to passengers, the flight crew and former executives said.

Cathay insisted in a response that the number of cabin crew on board flights is “comparable to the market and well above regulatory requirements”.

Among the sustainability initiatives, some beverage services were changed to reduce the use of plastic and there were “further improved food and beverage offerings” in business class.

“Unfortunately, it is so. Cathay switched from a Rolex to a Casio,” said one of the pilots. “I don’t think you’re going to see much recovery for long, long.” Cathay’s pilot exodus continues as pandemic restrictions hit morale

Adam Bradshaw

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