Opinion | Cathay can fly high again once it restores a sense of family

Hong Kong’s Covid-19 control regime was one of the world’s strictest, with quarantine on arrival up to 21 days at its height. We were also among the slowest locations to ease up. Whereas many places began moving to relax restrictions in early 2022, Hong Kong did not start lifting most controls until the end of that year and finally dropped its mandatory mask mandate in March 2023.
Different airlines responded differently to the situation according to their own experience, expectations and cultural norms. I have a friend working as a flight attendant for a Japanese airline who told me they remained on full basic pay throughout the Covid-19 saga but could not claim flight pay because the company had suspended the Hong Kong route. Singapore Airlines, a major competitor which is majority owned by government investment agencies, said it was cutting around 4,300 jobs.

Cathay took a more pessimistic view. It suspended operations completely on some routes, and even those which were kept open substantially reduced frequency. Ticket prices increased as overheads had to be covered by a smaller number of passengers. But the main impact was on staff: large numbers of pilots and cabin crew were laid off and others quit as working conditions became less attractive.

In October 2020, the company announced historic mass lay-offs. It also closed its subsidiary Cathay Dragon. Altogether about 4,000 cabin crew and some 600 pilots were let go. Groupwide and worldwide, Cathay cut some 8,500 jobs, of which around 5,300 were Hong Kong-based.
People walk past a line of Cathay Pacific pilot recruitment s at Hong Kong International Airport on January 10. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

As the world largely returned to normal and air travel opened up again, demand for qualified personnel rose. Because Hong Kong maintained controls for longer than other places, its recovery efforts were also delayed and other airlines had a head start over Cathay in recruitment.

There was also an impact on the morale of those staff that did remain, and a well-publicised case where crew were heard mocking the English language proficiency of a customer. The individuals were fired.
Ronald Lam Siu-por was appointed CEO of Cathayin 2023 to lead the rebuilding of the airline. I sat close to him at a recent lunch where he made a speech on the progress of recovery operations.

Based on what he said in the speech and in casual conversation, I am optimistic Cathay can restore its worldwide network in terms of routes, frequencies and staff numbers on schedule by the first quarter of 2025, and that ticket prices will start to come down.

I have a lingering concern about the staff issue but related more to morale than numbers. When I first arrived in 1972, I thought of England as home. But soon, the process of going home began at Heathrow and when I saw the sign “CX252 Hong Kong” at the Cathay check-in counter.

Cathay Pacific staff check in passengers manually during a system breakdown at Hong Kong International Airport on October 10, 2006. Photo: Felix Wong

This feeling became even stronger as the years passed. Between 2000 and 2008, I travelled extensively on Cathay in my capacity as first director general of investment promotion. A normal week in North America or Europe would begin with a flight to the first city at the weekend, with a full day programme there followed by a flight to the next city.

Each day would be a series of company visits plus a speech to a business organisation and a press interview, then an evening flight to the next city, all with the objective of explaining the advantages of doing business in Hong Kong. By Friday night, the team would be exhausted and more than ready for the return flight that weekend.

Wherever we were in the world, it was such a relief to see the Cathay check-in counter staff, the familiar uniform of the flight attendants as we boarded, and to hear the captain’s voice on the loudspeaker system. We were with family and almost home.

Recently, on personal journeys to destinations in Southeast Asia and the Chinese mainland, I have experienced the services of competing airlines. Suffice to say, they have substantially upped their game – still short of Cathay at its finest but giving us a run for our money.

Lam is well aware of the need to restore and enhance Cathay’s reputation for quality of service. I also impressed on him my view that it would be important to restore the sense of family.

Mike Rowse is an independent commentator

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