Cathay Pacific hits back after airline blamed for Hong Kong outbreak

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Cathay Pacific’s chair has hit back after Hong Kong’s leader blamed the airline for the territory’s first Omicron outbreak, even as her government battled a scandal over a karaoke party attended by senior officials.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has ordered an investigation into Cathay in connection with crew violating pandemic regulations and warned on Tuesday that the city’s flag carrier airline could face legal action.

But Cathay’s chair Patrick Healy said in a video to staff released late Tuesday evening that “non-compliance of this tiny minority should not be allowed to overshadow the remarkable discipline and professionalism of the overwhelming majority of Cathay Pacific crew over so many months”.

Healy’s remarks come as Lam tries to defend her tough pandemic policies after more than 10 top officials attended a 200-person birthday party last week. In an embarrassment to the government, the officials contravened guidelines to avoid large gatherings and two guests tested positive for Covid-19.

The karaoke party scandal and intensified pressure on Cathay has put the spotlight on the sustainability of the territory’s “zero-Covid” approach and the future of the carrier. The airline’s stock price has fallen by more than 10 per cent to HK$6.45 in the past two months.

Healy said he was “acutely aware that a small number of our crew have brought the company into disrepute by breaking self-isolation rules”. He added that “we have apologised publicly for the disruption and anguish caused by these non-compliances” and would co-operate with the investigation.

Healy said crews spent more than 73,000 nights in quarantine facilities in 2021 to prevent community infections.

Cathay’s passenger and cargo revenues were pummeled after Hong Kong implemented some of the world’s most stringent measures outside mainland China with a three-week quarantine for most incoming travellers.

The pressure was compounded after Hong Kong banned passenger flights from eight countries including the UK last Wednesday, while Cathay was also forced to significantly reduce its cargo flights due to tightened crew quarantine requirements.

As authorities attempted to contain the fallout from the birthday gathering, which is also being investigated, newspapers in the city with ties to the central government in Beijing called for punitive action against Cathay.

More than a dozen lawmakers who went to the karaoke party were absent from the Chinese territory’s first “patriots only” legislative session on Wednesday because they were either under self-isolation or mandatory quarantine.

Officials ordered into isolation at the government-run Penny’s Bay quarantine camp included home affairs minister Caspar Tsui.

The Chinese territory has so far recorded nearly 300 cases of the Omicron variant, most of them imported and detected during isolation. But a Cathay crew member who visited a restaurant during home quarantine last month and later tested positive for Omicron has seeded an outbreak.

“The attacks against Cathay could also be extended to [Carrie Lam] herself, calling for her to shoulder governance responsibility . . . especially among those who do not want her to seek a second term,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam and pro-Beijing figures have attacked an arrangement that allowed some Cathay flight crew to skirt tough quarantine requirements by flying out on a passenger flight and returning on an empty passenger aircraft passed off as a cargo flight. Cargo crew were exempted from weeks-long quarantine until recently.

Many of the carrier’s crew were also suffering a mental toll from their work, with some claiming they were in “permanent quarantine”. Pilots last month said dozens of their colleagues had quit while many were on stress leave.

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