By Kalai Raajan
FedEx Shuts Down Hong Kong Pilot Base, as Cathay Pacific Adopts a New Strategy
FedEx, the world’s largest delivery company, announced on Wednesday, Nov. 17 that it was closing its Hong Kong crew base and sending pilots overseas, blaming coronavirus restrictions that have left “no clear date” for when the city would return to normalcy.
The move is the latest setback to Hong Kong’s status as a global logistics powerhouse, as severe travel restrictions and rigorous quarantine procedures isolate the city from the rest of the globe. FedEx’s system chief pilot, Robin Sebasco, claimed the airline needed to “adapt” to the global economic, regulatory, and business environment in a company document indicating that a January decision to relocate its pilots out of the city was now permanent.
Industry stakeholders said the move reflected the government’s strict quarantine policies making it an increasingly difficult operating environment for businesses, though the decision was seen as unlikely to affect FedEx’s flights into and out of the city, which are largely operated by pilots based in California. While Hong Kong has experienced almost no local coronavirus infections for months as part of its zero-Covid strategy, the mandated 21-day hotel quarantine for anyone returning from various countries means the city is effectively cut off from the rest of the globe, even as the rest of the world reopens.
FedEx confirmed this in a statement, with a spokesperson stating that the business would “continue to retain its operations in Hong Kong, which are crucial to our Asia-Pacific and global network.” She went on to say that closing the local pilot base will “enable us to continue to staff our Hong Kong and Asia flights without being subject to Hong Kong immigration restrictions.”
Cathay Pacific, unlike FedEx, takes a different method.
Cathay Pacific is also a key shareholder in Hong Kong International Airport’s Asia Airfreight Terminal. FedEx Pilots from Hong Kong routinely traveled to Guangzhou to operate cargo flights from FedEx’s regional hub. Similarly, Cathay Pacific is considering relocating pilots outside of the city for up to four months in order to work around the city’s rigorous quarantine requirements.
The government recently tightened exemptions for local cargo pilots after three Cathay Pacific flight crew members were confirmed to be sick with Covid-19 in Frankfurt, where a suspected outbreak occurred at the crew’s hotel. Earlier on Wednesday, Elsa Yuen May-yee, president of the Hong Kong Logistics Association, warned that the government’s recent decision to require 130 Cathay Pacific aircrew to undergo 21 days of mandatory quarantine after returning from Frankfurt would have a negative impact on the sector, especially given the increased demand during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Cathay Pacific will require all aircrew exempt from Hong Kong’s tight quarantine protocols to self-isolate and avoid gatherings upon their return, even as it plans a drastic contingency plan to base pilots overseas for months at a time to bolster up personnel. It is currently polling pilots to gauge their enthusiasm in the new contingency, which would see them transferred outside of Hong Kong, quarantined in between flights to and from the city, and kept out of the local community – and away from their families – for four months at a period.
Pilots are being asked if they would want to be located in Dubai, Anchorage, Chicago, or other unspecified sites on both coasts of the United States. The new strategy is viewed as a workaround for Hong Kong’s tough anti-epidemic efforts, which are causing the airline’s aircraft operations to become unstable.
Cathay Pacific announced the “increased” self-isolation regulations to its employees on Monday night, with the measures slated to go into force on Wednesday. Three Cathay freight pilots who were exempt from quarantine upon arrival later tested positive for the coronavirus days later after re-entering Hong Kong. As a result of the pilots who tested positive, there is a greater emphasis on crew conduct during stopovers. All three had spent layovers at the Hyatt Regency Mainz, a hotel near Frankfurt, Germany’s international airport.
With that exemption potentially jeopardized as a result of the recent infections, Cathay has encouraged pilots from all of its cargo and passenger fleets to express their interest in its relocation contingency from ports other than Hong Kong. The airline stated that the relocation plan may begin as early as January 2022, or it might be scrapped entirely if judged unnecessary.