Hong Kong is set to announce the strictest quarantine measures for aircrew on long-haul flights from next week as it seeks to contain a surge of Covid-19
infections, which could plunge the struggling aviation industry into a fresh crisis.
Sources said pilots and cabin crew from Hong Kong, after a layover in any country, would be required to undergo quarantine in a hotel for 14 days upon returning to the city. The impact would hit flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways the hardest, as it is the biggest operator of such flights in the city.
“The quarantine plan will affect local aircrew who operate a flight with an overseas layover – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a passenger or cargo flight – and it means those flights which do long-haul or air cargo will be affected,” a source familiar with the plan said.
Health authorities confirmed 70 new infections on Thursday, with much of the focus still on an expanding outbreak in the densely populated Yau Tsim Mong district, where the government has ramped up mandatory testing for residents.
Three of the new cases were imported from Britain. Health officials said the family of three must have been infected while staying for a month in Dubai before flying to Singapore and then on to Hong Kong to circumvent a ban on direct flights from Britain.
Cathay Pacific, which was bailed out to the tune of HK$39 billion (US$4.9 billion) last year, mostly by taxpayers, would be hit hard, but more so in its air freight business than passenger operations, according to Bocom International transportation analyst Luya You.
“This would be a fairly significant blow to operations as staff flexibility is greatly reduced,” You said. “[The] cargo business is supposed to be a bright spot during the first half of 2021 due to vaccine distribution. This would cripple Cathay’s ability to plan fast flexibly on long-haul routes once the quarantine is in effect.”
Aircrew may be generally considered to be at greater risk of infection, given the exposure to passengers who could be carrying the coronavirus, but they have been exempted from quarantine orders that apply to the wider public.
Currently, local aircrew are tested on arrival in Hong Kong and have to stay in a hotel for 24 hours while waiting for their test results.
Foreign aircrew must present negative test results before they fly into Hong Kong, and be tested again upon arrival, after which they are required to take designated transport to hotels, and self-isolate in their rooms throughout their stay.
Many foreign airlines are opting not to let aircrew stop over in Hong Kong in favour of Tokyo or Bangkok, where fewer restrictions on airline staff allow them to swap flying crew.
Some carriers, such as British Airways on flights to and from London, fly twice as many staff to Hong Kong to avoid layovers.
Citing the pandemic situation at home and abroad, a Transport and Housing Bureau spokeswoman said: “The government will keep reviewing and refining the arrangements applicable to different categories of exempted persons, including aircrew, with reference to all relevant considerations.”
Cathay Pacific declined to comment.
The stricter measures for Hong Kong’s aviation industry contrast greatly with arrangements in Singapore, where airline workers are being prioritised for Covid-19 vaccination. The city state’s national carrier is likely to be the world’s first to have fully vaccinated aircrew.
Taiwan, another jurisdiction that has had success in pandemic control, last month ordered flight staff to quarantine at home for seven days, requiring them to test negative before allowing them to go about their normal lives. This was in response to the case of an infected EVA Air pilot who breached disease prevention rules.
Separately, 70,000 Hong Kong airport staff are being ordered to take Covid-19 tests starting next month – the plan is to screen any staff who are rostered to work at least three days a week in March.
Hong Kong was one of the first to be hit by Covid-19, and whatever success the government has had so far in managing the pandemic has come at the expense of air travel.
Since last March, the city has sealed off its borders to non-residents and increasingly taken a tougher approach to returnees by enforcing quarantine, first at home and now in hotels. More recently the number of days required for quarantine was increased to 21 from 14 days.
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