Crew Quarantines Pushed Cathay Pacific’s Capacity Down 90%

Tough crew quarantine rules continue to pummel Cathay Pacific. The Hong Kong-based airline has just released its traffic and capacity figures for March, and they paint a sorry picture. Passenger numbers are down 94% compared to March 2020. Capacity, measured in available seat kilometers, is down 90% against March 2020. But most notably, Cathay Pacific’s March 2021 capacity is also down 47% compared with February 2021.

Cathay Pacific’s seat capacity and passenger numbers continue to decline. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific averaging just 598 passengers a day in March

While Cathay Pacific Group Chief Customer and Commercial Officer Ronald Lam is careful to say a range of forces continue to plague the airline, he flags crew quarantine rules as particularly problematic.

“Our passenger business continues to face significant challenges,” Mr Lam says in a statement. “With the tightened crew quarantine requirements in Hong Kong, we only managed to maintain a skeleton schedule in March, operating passenger services to just 18 destinations.”

Cathay Pacific flew an average of 598 passengers per day in March. That’s worldwide. In February, the airline was averaging 755 passengers a day.

There were lots of empty seats on Cathay Pacific flights in March. Photo: Cathay Pacific

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Tough crew quarantine rules bite at Cathay Pacific

As a one hub long-haul airline with no domestic network, Cathay Pacific was hit hard by the global travel downturn. The airline posted a US$2.8 billion loss for 2020. A decision by the Hong Kong Government to impose a new crew quarantine regime in February was a further blow.

Cathay Pacific crews coming off flights in Hong Kong needed to isolate to an airport hotel until their next flight left. Further, upon wrapping up a roster, crews would need to isolate in a hotel for 14 days.

That saw Cathay Pacific implement a 21-day roster for its crews still working. After that, the crew members have to do the 14 day hotel isolation period.  After that, they get 14 days off before fronting up to do it all over again.

At the time, Cathay Pacific said the new regime would cost around US$52 million per month. The airline also said it would make operating services a very tough logistical proposition.

Cathay Pacific crew are subject to very tough quarantine rules on return to Hong Kong. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Some light on the horizon for Cathay Pacific?

Across what remains of Cathay Pacific’s once far-reaching network, capacity to North America was down 83.9% in March 2021 compared to the previous March. Capacity to Europe was down 95.8%. Capacity to the Southwest Pacific was down 96.8%. All flights to South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East remain suspended, so capacity there was down 100%.

Capacity this March to Southeast Asia was down 89.5% compared to March 2020. Capacity to North Asia was down 77.9%. The best performing market for Cathay Pacific this March was mainland China. Capacity to mainland China was down 39.9%. Two years ago, that last figure would have been unthinkable. Now, it’s almost a bright spot for Cathay Pacific.

Mainland China is Cathay Pacific most important market. So the news that the Hong Kong Government is eyeing lifting the mandatory quarantine period for travelers from China was warmly welcomed by the airline. Ronald Lam also encouraged moves to reduce quarantine periods for those arriving from low and medium-risk places, calling it a positive step in the right direction.

“We welcome and support the government’s plan to use ‘vaccine bubbles’ as the basis for introducing further relaxation measures, including those relating to cross-boundary travel.”

Whether because of the strict quarantine rules or not, Mr Lam says Hong Kong-based aircrew have taken more than 18,500 tests after arriving back in Hong Kong this year. None have tested positive.

Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific says it remains responsive to changing market conditions and the demand environment. The airline says it looks forward to the return of regular international air travel and restoring vital connections between Hong Kong and the rest of the world. No doubt it would also like to see its seat capacity and passenger numbers start heading back up.