Tue, Oct 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

As protests rack HK, Cathay Pacific staff ‘walking on eggshells’

Some Chinese state-controlled firms have told employees to avoid flying with the Hong Kong airline and it has been attacked by state news organizations

By Jamie Freed  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Staff at Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, are on edge.

Their territory has been gripped by months of anti-government protests and their company is feeling the wrath of China’s aviation regulator after some staff members took part or expressed support.

Since an Aug. 9 directive by the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) that called for the suspension of staff who supported or participated in the demonstrations, the regulator has rejected some entire crew lists without explanation, two sources with knowledge of the matter said.

The rejections have forced Cathay to scramble, pulling pilots and flight attendants off standby while it investigates social media accounts in an effort to determine which crew member has been deemed a security threat, one of the sources said.

Other disruptions have come in the form of a huge jump in the number of plane inspections upon landing, four pilots said.

The flexing of regulatory muscle has contributed to a climate of fear within the airline, with employees telling reporters they felt Cathay’s longer-term future as an independent company was highly uncertain and subject to Beijing’s whims.

The CAAC’s labeling of employees who support the protest as a security risk and its demand that they be suspended from flying over mainland airspace has been a de facto career killer.

About three-quarters of Cathay flights use mainland airspace and due to the directive, 30 rank-and-file staff, including eight pilots and 18 flight attendants, have been fired or resigned under pressure, the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation said.

Cathay chief executive Rupert Hogg and his top deputy also resigned in August amid the mounting regulatory scrutiny on the 73-year-old airline, one of the region’s most high-profile brands that draws on Hong Kong’s British heritage.

“Things changed very quickly,” said pro-democracy Hong Kong Legislator Jeremy Tam (譚文豪), a pilot who resigned from the airline after the CAAC directive, likening the atmosphere to a political trial. “The threat is huge and it’s almost like zero to 100 in two seconds.”

Reuters talked to 14 current and former employees for this article. Nearly all declined to be identified for fear of being fired or due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The CAAC did not respond to requests for comment on the rejections of crew lists or the increase in plane checks.

Cathay said in a statement it must comply with all regulatory requirements.

“Quite simply, this is our license to operate; there is no ground for compromise,” it said.

The airline declined to comment on the number of employee departures, but said any terminations took into account factors such as a person’s ability to perform their role.

Aviation regulators around the world conduct occasional plane inspections at airports to ensure an airline is in compliance with safety regulations, but after the CAAC’s Aug. 9 directive, the once-infrequent inspections occurred almost daily, and included the new and unusual step of checking phones owned by the crew for anti-China photographs and messages, the pilots said, adding that this had led to flight delays.

The step-up in checks has increased the likelihood of regulators finding minor issues to write up, which pilots said had included dirt on the plane’s exterior and scratches on a fire extinguisher.

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