Strict COVID curbs push Hong Kong off the list of top aviation hubs

Hong Kong has ceased to function as an international aviation hub due to its COVID-19 restrictions, says a trade group representing hundreds of airlines worldwide.

“It’s effectively off the map now, and I think it’s going to be difficult for Hong Kong to recover. It’s going to lag significantly behind the recovery that we’re seeing elsewhere and has led to a tough time for all airlines operating there,” Willie Walsh, director-general of the IATA, said at a briefing on Wednesday.

The IATA chief hoped that with rest of the Asia opening up, Hong Kong would also begin to relax its border restrictions. However, the city still bans flights even after rolling back some of the world’s strictest inbound travel curbs. There’s is increasing frustration over the city’s closure for much of the past two years due to pandemic restrictions.

“The restrictions there have been very severe and have led directly to the cancellation of a lot of services with airlines – effectively finding it incredibly difficult, if not impossible to operate there,” Walsh told South China Morning Post.

The tighter rules mandate a week-long quarantine for pilots and airline crew, affecting the capacity in and out of Hong-Kong international Airport-the world’s second-biggest airfreight hub.

The extra quarantine period reduces the number of available pilots, making it difficult for airlines to operate their normal flight schedules.

Hong-Kong-based Cathay Pacific in early January suspended all long-haul freighter and cargo-only passenger flights for a week after Hong Kong authorities extended the quarantine period for arriving air cargo crews from three to seven days.

Following the week-long suspension, the airline decided to operate 20% of its pre-pandemic cargo capacity and around 2% of its pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity in the month.

FedEx pilots early this year requested that the company stop layovers in Hong Kong because of burdensome quarantine conditions they said forced crews to be hospitalized against their will in substandard quarters if they tested positive for COVID upon arrival, with asymptomatic pilots kept in large congregate settings with communal bathrooms.

Many foreign airlines also decided not to change crews in Hong Kong, preferring to make an extra stop in Japan or South Korea to prevent their pilots from being subjected to difficult conditions and any impact on operations.

In March, leading airlines called on Hong Kong to scrap pre-flight and on-arrival Covid-19 tests for aircrew, citing the restrictions as key reasons to avoid flying to the city.

The city slapped airlines such as Singapore Airlines Ltd., Emirates, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Qatar Airways QCSC, Korean Air Lines Co., and Malaysia Airlines with week-long bans this month after breaching Hong Kong’s so-called circuit-breaker mechanism.

A stoppage can be meted out if three or more Covid-19 cases are found on the same flight, or if there’s one confirmed infection and another non-compliant passenger

Following the call from airlines, Hong Kong eased a raft of COVID restrictions on April 1, including lifting an outright ban on inbound flights from nine countries, including the U.S., the U.K., and Australia, and reduced quarantine for inbound travellers to one week. But the airlines are still discouraged by the restrictions.

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