Cathay Pacific Faces Legal Action Over Hong Kong COVID Outbreak

The Chairman of Cathay Pacific, Patrick Healy, has apologized after two flight attendants broke quarantine rules and potentially caused an outbreak at a birthday party earlier this week. Several guests at the party have tested positive for COVID-19, triggering anger among Hong Kong citizens and authorities.

Cathay Pacific’s Chairman has apologized for quarantine breaches by airline employees. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Birthday party backfires

As Hong Kong battles another COVID-19 outbreak, authorities are taking a very dim view of Monday evening’s birthday party in Reserva Ibérica Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Causeway Center in Wan Chai. It comes as Cathay Pacific is under sustained fire for previously dodging the city’s strict quarantine rules.

By all accounts, the birthday party for Witman Hung Wai-man, Shenzhen Qianhai Authority’s man in Hong Kong, was quite the shindig. Some 200 people attended to help blow out the birthday candles, including the Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui Ying-wai, and senior officials.

An outbreak in Hong Kong has been traced to a Cathay Pacific flight attendant who, along with one other, broke the medical surveillance regulations after their duty. This triggered an outbreak at a Kowloon Tong restaurant – the starting point of the spread of omicron in Hong Kong. Both have since been fired.

Unfortunately, some of the guests at the high-profile birthday party were also COVID positive – the event has quickly morphed into a major scandal. For its part, Cathay’s Chairman, Patrick Healy, has apologized for any rule-breaking attributed to the airline.

“Everything we do at Cathay Pacific is in the service of Hong Kong,” said Mr Healy during the online mea culpa. “I am acutely aware a small number of our crew have brought the company into disrepute by breaking the self-isolation rules. We apologize publicly for the disruption and anguish caused.”

Empty passenger flights passed off as cargo flights

It’s no secret COVID-19 has hit Cathay Pacific extremely hard. This month, the airline is flying around 2% of its pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity. Tough quarantine rules for Cathay Pacific crew are making life even harder for the airline. Crews on passenger flights have to go through up to two weeks of quarantine after landing back in Hong Kong.

Cargo crews had been exempt from that rule. Keeping the supply lines open has been essential, and Cathay Pacific has been operating around 20% of its pre-pandemic freight capacity. But Cathay Pacific stands accused of exploiting the quarantine pass given to cargo crews by designating empty passenger aircraft returning home as cargo flights, allowing those crews to skip quarantine.

Whether or not that’s accurate is unknown, but Cathay couldn’t halt a wave of fury from Beijing and local authorities, pro-Beijing media, and embattled local residents. Those wayward flight attendants were the spark that lit the proverbial powder keg.

“We will take the legal action once we have the full evidence,” warned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday. Pro-Beijing media are calling for the criminal prosecution of the crew members and for Cathay Pacific’s top management to be held to account.

“The central government obviously believes that Cathay Pacific needs to take some responsibility for this,” Emeritus Professor John Burns at Hong Kong University’s politics and public administration department told The Financial Times.

Cathay Pacific is only operating at a fraction of its 2019 levels. Photo: Cathay Pacific

A minority should not tarnish the majority at Cathay Pacific

In his scramble to fix relations with Beijing and Hong Kong authorities, Patrick Healy said non-compliance with quarantine and self-isolation was unacceptable. However, he notes a minority should not tarnish the professionalism of the majority at Cathay Pacific.

Mr Healy acknowledged separate investigations underway into the crew non-compliance issues and the rebadging of empty passenger flights as cargo flights. He says Cathay Pacific will co-operate with any investigation.

The two flight attendants have lost their jobs at the airline. Many of the other attendees at the party may also find soon find themselves in the unemployment lines.