Airlines Suspend Hong Kong Flights Over New Coronavirus Tests For Crews

Filed Under: American, United

Airlines are facing so many challenges when it comes to operating international flights, from lack of demand to constantly changing government restrictions. Well, it looks like US airlines now have a major new issue with operating Hong Kong flights.

American & United cancel HKG flights

American Airlines and United Airlines had both cancelled passenger flights to Hong Kong as of March, and the plan was for them to resume flights to Hong Kong as of this month:

  • American was supposed to fly between Dallas and Hong Kong as of July 9
  • United started flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong as of July 6

American Airlines was supposed to resume Hong Kong flights today

These service resumptions are in spite of strict entry requirements, which essentially only allow locals to return to Hong Kong. However, these flights are probably viable for a couple of reasons:

  • Cargo has become an even bigger source of revenue for major airlines than before, so in many cases flights could be profitable even with very few passengers onboard
  • Hong Kong Airport started allowing transit passengers as of last month

Anyway, unfortunately Hong Kong service was short-lived for United, and never happened for American. United Airlines cancelled its San Francisco to Hong Kong flight yesterday…

…and American cancelled its Dallas to Hong Kong flight today.

We should expect these cancellations to continue. What exactly is going on?

Hong Kong’s new crew testing requirement

All passengers arriving in Hong Kong have to undergo testing, which is part of Hong Kong’s plan to stop the spread of coronavirus. Historically airline crews have been exempt from this, but this has changed.

Arriving airline crews are now expected to go to the nearby AsiaWorld-Expo and undergo coronavirus testing before their layovers. The unions representing pilots at both American and United have raised objections to this, to the point that they’re refusing to work Hong Kong flights.

What problem do pilots apparently have with this? @xJonNYC shares the following regarding what’s going on at American:

According to the notice issued by the Centre for Health Protection, anyone with a positive test sample would be admitted to a hospital “as soon as possible,” and anyone refusing to submit to testing would be subject to fine and imprisonment.

Upon learning of the new testing requirements, APA immediately contacted management to discuss the situation and raise concerns, both contractual and other, about the new testing requirements that crew members would be subjected to upon arrival. Discussions have been ongoing regarding this matter since yesterday, and management has advised APA that it is suspending all flying to HKG until Aug. 5, as it works with the appropriate authorities to address the concerns regarding the testing mandate.

I’ve heard that specifically there are a few different aspects of this that pilots object to, including:

  • The amount of timing that the testing adds to their day, especially after such a long flight
  • How invasive the PCR test is
  • The need to be hospitalized with any positive test
  • The potential implications if one crew member tests positive; does that mean the entire crew would have to go into a 14-day quarantine in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong is now testing arriving airline crews

Bottom line

I’ll be curious to see how this situation evolves regarding crew testing in Hong Kong. In this case I can’t blame crews for expressing concerns about what happens if a crew member tests positive.

Not only would that crew member allegedly need to be hospitalized, but what would happen to the rest of the crew? Would everyone be stuck with a 14-day quarantine in Hong Kong? This is why crews are asking for testing to instead happen before departure, so that if they do test positive, they won’t be stuck in another country.

  1. I wonder if it’s possible to do what Delta is doing for their PVG flights? Would AA/UA be able to stopover in a nearby airport like ICN or TPE for crew rest and then do a same day turnaround flight to HKG?

  2. You can’t fault Hong Kong for keeping infected Americans out without proper testing!

    Even though they are tightly packed city of 7.5m people right next to China they have conquered Covid and certainly don’t want to relapse into its nightmare. They are averaging less than 10 new cases per day; Dallas county, which is 1/3 the size of Hong Kong, vastly more spread out, and nowhere close to Wuhan, has over 1,000 (not a typo — one THOUSAND) new cases per day or (things are at least a lot better in the San Francisco Bay Area with ~820 new cases for their 7.7m, but still 80x worse than HKG).

  3. Why not just fly there, and immediately fly back without getting off the plane?

    Crew#1 works outbound and crew #2 inbound

    They can sleep in J or F cabin when they are off

  4. Just curious about the comment that the crews view the PCR test as “invasive”? Isn’t it the same test that is administered in the US as well which they presumably are required to undergo as well prior to flying? How is the test conducted in the US not or less “invasive” than the one done in Hong Kong?

  5. The HK COVID test is not invasive. They use deep throat saliva specimen collection to test, in which one spit in a plastic container provided by the health authority. Results will be ready in 8 hours. The reason they are making things stricter because last week a pilot who stayed in HK for a few days became sick and tested positive after he went and see a private doctor. A group of cargo ship crew people who are also exempt from testing or quarantine were staying in HK for a 3 days, they were asymptomatic until they left HK, 2 of them started to feel unwell on the next destination and tested positive. All these asymptomatic people who are exempt from quarantine can import the virus into the city.

  6. American here living in HK as an expat. Our family went through the testing at HK airport. It was roughly 7 hours long. All we did was spit our saliva in tube. Our toddler of course didn’t want to do that so we had to give a stool sample a few days later. All in all we didn’t complain too much as we expected a much longer wait time. I saw some families being overly prepared such as bringing a camping tent. Heck I don’t think it was a bad idea now to think of it.

    But bad news is that as of today July 9 we have a total of 34 new cases. Mostly are imported. Restrictions are coming soon as this will be our “3rd wave.”

    As I’m watching what’s happening in the US it’s saddening that the cases are spiking upwards to 30k per day. I really hope things can get better in the US. Thank you to those that are practicing social distancing and wearing proper face mask, it really does help.

  7. Well, it’s not as if only passengers can spread the virus – the pilots and crew are just as much of a risk as are passengers. So it makes sense to test everyone coming in. I can’t really blame Hong Kong, this seems like a sensible idea to keep the city safe.

  8. Fair enough. HK’s infection and death rates per capita are a tiny fraction of those of the U.S.

  9. @Dan

    The sad thing is the US would be extremely happy if their spikes are only 30k…

    They’ve hit more than double that yesterday.

  10. I hope this doesn’t affect transit passengers, as I’m due to transit in HK in a week on my way home, after being stuck abroad for nearly six months…
    I also hope Lufthansa crew agrees to this…

  11. just another typical American undisciplined and rebellious attitude toward other nation rules and regulations. Airlines crews are not people, not immune to disease?

  12. AA/UA don’t want to have a bad PR stunt – that’s why they want to avoid to take the test. I am sure that we do have some flight attendants with COVID-19 and still working. What a bleeding money!

  13. @ asprino Great article with detail information!

    I don’t understand why the US pilot union are so concern of them being tested positive? Isn’t this supposed to be good for the safety and health of the employees?

  14. @Alicia – “I don’t understand why the US pilot union are so concern of them being tested positive? Isn’t this supposed to be good for the safety and health of the employees?”

    The issue appears to be not testing positive itself, but testing positive & being stuck in another country.

  15. The only thing I trust less than the ChiComs is a Covid test administered by the ChiComs.

    As a crewmember there is no way I’d feel comfortable with this knowing that I could be detained in HK for an unknown period of time in an unknown location.

  16. CX is going to be real HAPPY about this situation so they can have all passengers flying with them.

  17. So the pilots are concerned about getting stuck in another country.

    The questions that need to be asked:

    Let’s say someone on the crew is infected. Do the rest of the crew actually want to fly back with that infected person? Should they fly back themselves with a plane full of passengers knowing that they’ve been in close contact with someone who’s been infected?

    It seems to me that the best course of action, in this case, is to have the entire crew quarantined. Allowing them to fly back is wanton disregard for the health of everyone else who may be on the returning flight.

    But I guess this type of objection is typical to the attitude in the US these days? Where it’s better not to test than to find out that you or someone close to you have been infected. Or you can still go about your daily business even if you’re infected? Perhaps Americans can treat this disease a little more seriously like people in almost every other country…

  18. For all the arrogant jerks here bashing the Americans, they failed to read the part where the crews are proposing to be tested just prior to departure from the U.S. so, if positive, they don’t board the flight in the first place.

    Gee, that doesn’t make sense, does it?

  19. Pilots should suck it up and get tested, and submit to excellent medical care if found positive, then not spread the virus to friends, family, colleagues, passengers, airport workers etc.

    I really can’t see a downside here.

  20. @1KBrad.

    Agree totally. If I am sick, I want to be home. The solution works well for avoiding Quarantine upon arrival in Hawaii. You must arrive with a negative test 72 hours (or less) old.

  21. Agree that it will be a better arrangement to test before flying into HK. Before this happens, mandatory testing after arriving Hong Kong is the best way to ensure the health of both the crew and the public.

    I think in this extraordinary situation, public health should take priority over a person’s few hours of wait in the Convention Center or 14 days of quarantine in HK if someone near you tested positive. In the early days of the pandemic, people around an infected person were even quarantined in a dedicated location.

    I hope that they are not suggesting letting possibly infected people going freely on the streets of HK, otherwise it will be utterly inconsiderate and irresponsible to the health of the public.

    And in any case that someone tested positive somewhere, not just their home country, isn’t it better to get hospitalised and get treatment immediately? This is not just a matter of your own good, but also all the other people around you, because you will infect others when you are carrying the virus outside.

    Also, all passengers are subjected to the wait and testing, even they may have spent hours in the flight, working on their own business. And it is not like the chance of crew spreading the virus is any lower than typical passengers. It is fair to include crew into the testing scheme too.

    Quite disappointed how selfish people are even facing such difficult times….

  22. @1KBrad

    I would not trust any airline, whether American or Pakistani, with doing its own testing.
    They’ll pick whatever test offers the highest rate of false negatives and call it a day.

    It’s not bashing Americans here, rather it’s the typical Americans bashing foreigners (HK) as no other airline/nation have a problem with this system.

  23. @Mark S

    How can you claim something works well before it is implemented? Arriving in Hawaii with a negative COVID-19 test, taken with 72 hours of arrival, doesn’t go into effect until August 1st. Hawaii is seeing a spike in community spread with their highest daily numbers ever, which could likely delay the option of testing in lieu of a self-quarentine.

    Perhaps HKG feels better about doing the tests locally than accepting test results from a country that has 25% of the world’s cases in only 4% of the world’s population with a belief that COVID-19 is harmless to 99.9% of the people and that if you don’t test, there aren’t any cases. The US isn’t anywhere near getting ahead of the first wave. It will be interesting to see what the flu season brings.


  24. @Alicia
    The moment you mention “Union” is the moment you mention “it’s all about money and to hell with common sense”. Never believe a single word uttered from the mouth of a Union representative.

  25. @1KBrad Not sure how testing before the flight is relevant. They can potentially turn positive during the flight, and become confirmed carriers. In which case, do you still want these guys to fly?

    I think it’s reasonable for them to ask to be tested before the flight, so that they’re less likely test positive after the flight. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for post-flight testing.

    However, it seems that these pilots would prefer *not* to know if they become infected, by avoiding the post-flight test. That’s just recklessly endangering people around them.

  26. @Jim:

    So you want to go to work and run the risk of being quarantined for 14-days in a foreign country?

    What is the airline then going to do for a pilot on the return flight?

    What happens to the rest of the crew?

    What happens if the pilot “turns” positive 3-hours after arriving and being tested in HKG?

    If the pilot is negative before the flight, it is overwhelmingly likely the pilot will remain negative.

    If HKG doesn’t want to take that chance, the airlines will cancel their flights.


  27. @1KBrad The alternative you suggest, where they fly back infected, is simply irresponsible to a much larger group of people. It doesn’t matter what the answers to your questions are. It’s just WRONG. They should not fly with a positive test. (Obviously, your solution to this is just to not test, which is the same as that of the Trump administration…)

    The pilot can test before the flight if they want and can reduce likelihood of quarantine afterwards. But it is NOT the same as a second test after the flight.

  28. @Jim:

    No employee and no airline in the U.S. is going to take that risk. None.

    And you can hate Trump in your ignorance all you want (I can’t help stupid people) but I never advocated not testing.

    The Left making garbage up again.

    Transfer into the real world when you are ready to grow up.

  29. When was the goal to eliminate the spread of c19? It was always flatten the curve of only the RATE of infections…the total number of infections will always be the same until there is either herd immunity or a vaccine. Yes, huge surges in infection rates in U.S. but with a diminishing death rate! Now at 0.04% which is less than a typical flu season. And CDC says infection rate is likely up to 26 times higher than tested. Hello, does anyone comprehend this?!!

  30. @Tim

    “flatten the curve” is the buzzword used in the West. For most APEC countries (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore), the goal is “containment”. They are trying to eradicate local cases and close the border to seal off imported cases.

  31. @Tim

    You’re showing your completely lack of understanding when it comes to simple math. It takes time for patients to die after the onset of symptoms, which means if daily new cases are accelerating, then death rate naturally drops (since the newly infected have not had time to go through the entire cycle yet). Over time the death rate will catch up.

    It’s really simply if you just apply some basic math.

  32. @David, that’s quiet the accusation of my math comprehension. Yes, there is a chance that the rate of death will increase…time will tell but so far the numbers do not bear that out. Hospitalizations have increased in some areas. You must know that when media reports ICU beds full that’s because they are full of non-covid patients who delayed surgeries. Houston is often mentioned but covid patients in ICU account for less than 25% there. But consider that most new infections are under age 35 compared to Feb/Mar when it was over 60. This virus is less severe for younger people. Also, the treatments have improved greatly — even recent hydroxychloroquine studies have shown it very effective in early stages of infection.

    Think of NY & NJ. Early in pandemic they had huge and swift infections. Now, their infection rates have slowed greatly. One likely reason is that initial infections were during winter when people were indoors together with recirculated air for prolonged periods. Now consider the four hot spots (CA, AZ, TX & FL)…it is summer and very hot in those places and people are indoors together with recirculated air for prolonged periods. And it’s less likely due to reopening because there are other states such as CO that reopened at same time and they don’t see an infection rise because they have more temperate climates where people can be outdoors. So CA closing beaches is silly and not supported by science. So NY has likely reached a plateau because so many died off and infections were high early on.

    And the calls for a national response is also silly because epidemiology requires nimble local responses. Imagine the same response in NY compared to SD or WY…makes zero sense.

    And since you are an extremely stable genius in math, the death rates per 100,000 show an interesting picture (from
    #1 NJ
    #2 NY
    #3 CT
    #4 MA
    #5 RI
    #10 MD
    #15 CO
    #16 AZ
    #20 OH
    #25 FL
    #30 CA
    #35 SD
    #40 TX
    #45 UT
    #49 WY
    #50 MT

    It’s really simple if you apply some basic math.

  33. In my opinion, every country have their own protocol to contain the virus, it’s what work best for them (at different time or stage). HK is a very dense city, it can go out of control if they don’t take further measures. Since HK announced and started to test aircrew and seacrew members on July 8th… up until yesterday (July 13th) they’ve already found a handful of crew members tested positive, which all have the potential to import the virus into the city. It’s a loophole they want to close.

    Just to name a few (not complete) who tested positive within 5 days (most asymptomatic, but a few had minor symptoms):

    1 FedEx pilot from USA
    3 ship crew from Philippines
    2 ship crew from India
    1 ship crew from Finland
    1 ship crew from Germany
    1 ship crew from Turkey
    1 aircrew from Azerbaijan
    2 ship crew from Malaysia
    4 pilots from Kazakhstan
    1 aircrew from Kazakhstan
    1 aircrew from Philippines
    1 aircrew from UK

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