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Locked up in inns: Hong Kong's COVID-19 guidelines take a psychological toll on Cathay pilots

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Cathay Pacific planes are parked on the tarmac at Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong, China, October 24, 2020. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu / File Photo

By Jamie Freed

(Reuters) – One of Asia's largest airlines, Cathay Pacific, faces a revolt from pilots who say Hong Kong's strict quarantine rules under the zero-COVID policy are putting their mental health at risk, leading to increased stress and resignation.

Cathay Pacific Airways (OTC 🙂 Ltd posted https://www.reuters.com/markets/europe/cathay-pacific-fires-3-pilots-infected-with-covid-19-layover-scmp-2021-11 last week -18 fired three pilots who violated company rules by leaving their hotel rooms during a layover in Frankfurt and later tested positive for COVID-19.

The government responded by forcing more than 270 people, including schoolchildren connected with their families, to tiny quarters in a state quarantine camp https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-hongkong-families -idUSKBN2B711T.

Some pilots declared themselves unfit to fly for their first roster after discharge https://www.instagram.com/p/CWr6BPRh8N9.

The extreme example of pandemic precautionary measures under China's zero-COVID policy underscores the difficult working conditions faced by Cathay pilots, all of whom are fully vaccinated, even as other Asian countries are slowly reopening.

Cathay rivals, including Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd, have started lifting strict layover guidelines, but the Hong Kong government is continuing to tighten rules in line with the mainland in hopes of convincing Beijing to allow cross-border travel.

"I don't think I can hold out," a Cathay pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. "The stress of a possible quarantine of my family and friends alone takes its toll."

Several other current and recently departed Cathay pilots told Reuters morale was low and layoffs rose a year after many permanently cut their salaries https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cathay-pacific-layoffs -idUSKBN2780L0 than 58%.

Extreme stress is a significant problem in an industry where any sign of mental health problems can make finding another job difficult.

"What is the risk if I tell you that I'm a little stressed?" asked a pilot who has stayed in hotel rooms outside of Hong Kong for more than 200 nights since the pandemic began. “Does this affect my medical treatment?

The pilots also expressed frustration at the ambiguity of some of the government-imposed pandemic-related rules. Pilots, for example, have to avoid "unnecessary social contact" for three weeks after their return to Hong Kong, but are not given a break.

Cathay admitted in a statement to Reuters that pilot resignations have risen above normal levels since the end of October.

"The incident in Frankfurt has unfortunately influenced the current mood," said the airline.

HARD ROSTERS

Hong Kong rates many travel destinations, including the United States and the United Kingdom, as "high risk," which means that Cathay pilots flying passengers from these locations are subject to a two-week hotel quarantine.

To fill these flights, Cathay began voluntarily running closed-loop duty rosters in February that included five consecutive weeks in hotel rooms with no access to fresh air or a gym and then two weeks off at home.

"I did it to make some money as the 50% pay cut (last year) made life a lot harder," said a recently retired pilot who completed two closed loops. "There are people in their 5th or 6th closed loop right now."

Cathay said Thursday that some inbound flights would be canceled during the peak demand season in December, suggesting a volunteer shortage.

The airline said it recognized the strain on its pilots and held bi-weekly dial-in sessions to share concerns and programs like a peer-based pilot assistance network and offering extended absences.

LEAVING HONG KONG

As conditions improve elsewhere in the world, other airlines, including Emirates and U.S. cargo carrier Atlas Air (NASDAQ 🙂 Worldwide Holdings Inc., are looking for Cathay pilots for heads, those who spoke to Reuters said.

Emirates, which has launched a recruiting campaign for 600 pilots, declined to comment. Atlas (NYSE 🙂 did not respond to a request for comment.

The pilots Reuters spoke to said they would expect more layoffs in the next year when the temporary housing and school fees expire.

Cathay said it will hire "several hundred" new pilots and resume its cadet program next year.

Hong Kong's strict rules resulted in FedEx Corp (NYSE 🙂 closing its pilot base in the city last week, underscoring the territory's dwindling appeal as a major logistics hub.

"I really, really feel for the people at Cathay," said a FedEx pilot who recently left Hong Kong. "I am really concerned about your mental health and how you are doing."

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