Opinion | Cathay Pacific travel chaos shows need to revisit tourism recovery plans

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Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific is cancelling an average of 12 flights per day until February to ensure normal operation for the Lunar New Year period. In early 2023, Cathay executives said the airline aimed to resume 70 per cent of its flight capacity by the end of the year and fully restore capacity by the end of 2024.
However, the recent surge in cancelled flights not only threatens Cathay’s 2024 flight capacity goal but has also sparked concern among Transport and Logistics Bureau officials and Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu. The bureau expressed concern over Cathay’s decision to combine flights and said it should promptly inform affected passengers of any changes. Meanwhile, Lee urged the airline to review its manpower and overall flight capacity to restore its competitiveness.
The Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, which represents Cathay pilots, said in a statement that the shortage of senior pilots was the consequence of the company’s decision in 2020 to permanently reduce staff pay and fire experienced pilots and flight attendants.

This is not the first time Cathay has come under fire for its staffing decisions. Last May, for example, three flight attendants were accused of discriminating against mainland passengers.

The flight attendants’ association said their behaviour stemmed from low morale, high pressure and poor pay. The low salary levels and lack of experienced flight attendants are another consequence of the airline’s decisions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cathay had assumed it could easily hire back pilots and other staff who were fired or left, once the pandemic was over. However, it overestimated the availability of these people and underestimated how difficult it would be to bring back those who had settled into other careers.
Cathay Pacific has apologised for a wave of cancelled flights after coming under fire. Photo: Dickson Lee
Cathay is not the only victim of the pandemic’s long-tail effects. The whole Hong Kong tourism industry appeared to expect the situation to return to pre-pandemic norms once borders reopened, as happened following the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak from 2003 to 2004. However, the lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have changed tourists’ travel patterns.
This phenomenon has no easy cure. The Hong Kong government introduced a scheme to import workers for several sectors last June, but pilots aren’t that easy to replace. In the long run, only by improving the working environment will Cathay manage to return to its pre-pandemic operating capacity.
The increasing competitiveness of other cities and countries is a warning to Hong Kong that it must do more than return to the pre-pandemic status quo if it wants tourism to thrive.

Regaining Hong Kong’s reputation as a top travel destination requires the tourism industry to get to grips with the new labour market realities and tourist preferences. The whole industry, not just Cathay, should re-evaluate its recovery plans and ensure they have the necessary staff numbers to achieve the high service standards that existed pre-pandemic.

Tourists on Victoria Peak in Hong Kong on January 9. Regaining Hong Kong’s reputation as a top travel destination requires the tourism industry to get to grips with the new reality of the labour market and tourist preferences. Photo: Bloomberg
Cathay’s ambitious flight capacity plans are just one example where insufficient staffing leads to problems. Unfortunately, the airline failed to review its plans ahead of time, leading to the flight chaos of recent weeks.
The solution to Cathay’s problem is the same as that for Hong Kong’s tourism industry in general – be humble and discuss future plans with employees. Importing workers is not a long-term solution. Both Cathay and the city need sound personnel training systems and an attractive working environment.

Hong Kong needs lessons on tourism. China’s icy north provides them

In addition, for Cathay to remain a leading airline and standard-bearer for the city, it must do better at maintaining prompt communication with customers. Hong Kong has to stop living under the illusion that it still enjoys a reputation for high-quality customer service.

Amid the recent travel chaos and tourist complaints, everyone associated with the tourism industry and in other related fields should work to better motivate and support workers to rebuild Hong Kong’s reputation. This will not be easy, and the government must take an active role in negotiations between employers and workers. There is no time to waste.

John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong

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