Sad: Cathay Pacific Closing Foreign Pilot Bases

Filed Under: Cathay Pacific

In the past couple of years, Cathay Pacific closed its flight attendant bases in North America (including in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Vancouver), and now the airline is closing its pilot bases in Canada, with more foreign pilot bases at risk of closing in the coming months.

Cathay Pacific closes Toronto & Vancouver pilot bases

One of the things that has historically made Cathay Pacific unique is how many foreign crew bases the Hong Kong-based airline has, both for flight attendants and pilots. Unfortunately these seem to largely be a victim of the pandemic.

Danny Lee from the South China Morning Post reports that Cathay Pacific has made the decision to close its pilot crew bases in Toronto and Vancouver.

  • Pilots based in Canada will be given the option to be transfered to Hong Kong, though this presents its own issues; Hong Kong is currently only issuing temporary work visas to expats, and Cathay Pacific already has a surplus of local pilots due to Cathay Dragon being merged into Cathay Pacific
  • All foreign based Cathay Pacific pilots haven’t been flying since May 2020 — furloughed pilots in Europe and the United States have been receiving 50% of their salary, while pilots in Canada have been receiving 67% of their salary
  • While no final decision has been made, Cathay Pacific has started a consultation process for closing pilot bases in Australia and New Zealand, and later this year will “review” its pilot bases in Europe and the United States

Cathay Pacific is closing some foreign crew bases

This is sad for pilots & their families

Obviously the airline industry overall is in a tough spot, and Cathay Pacific is in an especially rough situation. The airline was struggling even pre-coronavirus given everything that was going on in Hong Kong. Between continued border closures in Hong Kong and passenger numbers being a tiny fraction of what they were pre-pandemic, Cathay Pacific is continuing to bleed money.

While on the surface pilots based in Canada have the opportunity to transfer to Hong Kong, that’s not exactly an easy decision. Most pilots have families, so there’s a lot that goes into making a move like that.

That’s especially true when you consider the uncertainty with this — pilots may only be getting short term work visas, and who knows how long until they could eventually be let go due to lack of demand.

I feel bad for the pilots in this situation, especially given the general challenges with moving around in the airline industry. At most airlines, pilots are paid primarily based on seniority, so it’s not like a Cathay Pacific 777 captain of 20+ years can get a comparable job at Air Canada or another carrier (there might be some opportunities outside of North America, but again, that’s a big sacrifice).

Pilots will be given the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong

I’ve always loved Cathay Pacific’s foreign bases

When I was a kid it was my dream to become an airline pilot. When I thought of the airline I most wanted to work for, Cathay Pacific was always number one on my list. Why?

  • Unlike most other foreign airlines, Cathay Pacific had crew bases in the US, so you could be based in the US while working for the airline
  • Cathay Pacific hired 777 second officers (essentially relief pilots on long haul flights) with similar experience requirements to a first officer position at a regional airline
  • It’s a pretty cushy job to fly almost exclusively between the US and Hong Kong, as you basically work three or so roundtrips per month and then max out your hours
  • At the time Cathay Pacific was promoting people from second officer all the way to captain in less than 10 years, while being a wide body captain at a US airline typically takes 20+ years of seniority

While I never ended up becoming a professional pilot, I still have great respect for airline pilots, and in particular am fascinated by Cathay Pacific pilots. Every time I board a Cathay Pacific flight I intently listen to the announcement from the pilot, and love how international the cockpit crews are.

Of course just because a pilot has an American or Canadian accent doesn’t mean they’re based in the US or Canada, as Cathay Pacific has a lot of expat pilots based in Hong Kong as well.

If Cathay Pacific does follow through with closing most foreign crew bases, I’ll be sad to no longer be able to guess whether pilots are Hong Kong based or not (and of course much more importantly would be sad that these people may either be out of a job or have to move their life halfway around the world).

I’ve always loved how international Cathay Pacific pilots are

Bottom line

Cathay Pacific recently closed its flight attendant bases in North America, and now the airline is closing its pilot bases in Canada, with other foreign bases potentially being reevaluated as well.

While Cathay Pacific pilots will have the option of relocating to Hong Kong, that’s not exactly an easy decision to make. Not only will pilots have to move their families halfway around the world, but there’s also the question of how much job security there is in Hong Kong with a short term work visa.

  1. Not a nice situation to be in but that is not different than being an expat in a big company. Once you are an expat which is what these pilots and flight attendants are you are not in control of your life but your company is. Most times there is a “contract” in place saying how long you will be outside your home base but that can be changed at any time if the company feels it is no longer needed. I used to work for a company that brought over 150 employees and their families to the US since the employees would be part of a big project. The expectation was that they would be here for 5 years. 18 months later the company decided to shut down the project and all those people had to go back home.

  2. Working for foreign companies/countries can be lucrative but comes with a risk. Whether it is an American overseas or someone from another country working in the US.

    I’m always surprised when I watch various tv shows where people buy homes in foreign countries. It is often a lot of money with limited rights if you aren’t a citizen of that country. It works until it doesn’t.

    And the airline industry has never been known for stability. Too many pilots, too few pilots.

  3. I’m curious what the impact to travelers would be. I’m reminded of a time in 2016 when I had a flight on CX out of New York. The scheduled pilot got sick and the flight was delayed almost a full day so a new pilot could be flown out. While most people were accommodated on other flights or moved to Air China, my connection was tight and there was no way I could make it, so they kept me on the original one full day delayed flight.

    If there was a New York base at the time, doesn’t seem like it was much help.

  4. They haven’t been flying for a year now? Yikes. At least for a lot of them, 1/2 to 2/3 of their pay can still be a lot, but that’s gotta be frustrating, and now this. Gonna be a lot of early retirements due to this announcement I’m guessing.

  5. @Nate nate – Setting up a foreign pilot base is more of an administrative matter, such as to attract pilots who don’t want to live in another country to work for the company, rather than to deal with operational contingencies. So yeah customer experience-wise it doesn’t help much other than making the crew more international.

  6. I remember having flown out of YVR to HKG in Dec2019, Pilot came out and I had a chat w him. He and his family were from Chilliwack, I was very surprised as its rather far from YVR but he’d been w the airline for well over 15years…I can’t imagine him leaving that behind to go to HKG with everything that’s going on. I do take a little comfort that they have posh contracts and do get a nice compensation. Sad still.

  7. Those bases are in countries that have done a terrible job managing the pandemic, while the airline’s hub is in one that has controlled the virus and has tight border rules to ensure they don’t give up the gains from having done so.

    They had no choice.

  8. Okaaay, Lucky, time to call BS on you.

    If being a Cathay pilot was your dream as a *kid* because of the reasons you listed (foreign bases, experience requirements, fast promotion paths, etc.)… were either an uber need with inside info or you are/were full if shooter.

    I am leaning towards the latter.

    In the nicest possible way, of course. lol.

    Coming, man. We like you already. No need to stretch (or make up) the truth!

  9. Lucky, you left out another reason why moving to Hong Kong might not be a pleasant option: things are, uh, “changing” there WRT personal rights and freedoms. It’s a lot less like moving to the UK and a lot more like moving to China.

  10. Ahhhh – how well I remember all my conversations with teenager Lucky, and him wanting to fly for CX – Lucky, you’re the best. Sad day for CX though.

  11. It should be noted that all of Cathay’s ANC based pilots fly the 747 on their dedicated freighter routes. There’s a few LAX based pilots that are also on the 747.

  12. Australia based Pilots are the worst hit, they’ve been on 50% for a year and now are on zero…..the 50% they received was subsidized by Govt jobkeeper as well so it cost Cx less……..long loyal very senior crew being sacrificed…..

  13. I am curious about the bases themselved. Do (did?) any of the Canadian bases have training facilities (i.e simulators) or do the aircrew routinely return to HKG for their mandatory sim quals.

    I’ve got to think that aircrew that stay with Cathay and make the shift to HKG will, at least on some level, become commuters. Once they have tach’d out their hours for the month, surely they’d be free to go home.

  14. Given CX is now being bankrolled by the HKSAR Govt, it is not surprising in the least they would be closing bases overseas. Effectively the Government wants to make sure that its billions are being spent to keep jobs in Hong Kong, and not to keep jobs going in other locations. It is as simple as that. Tough going, but the whole industry is screwed. CX is one of the few airlines who didn’t make massive cuts a year ago and attempted to retain as many of their crews as they could.

  15. @Shannon: you’re completely right. Hong Kong has been a primary business hub in East Asia, with particular focus on business in China. With the removal of the rule of law, they lose their main selling point. Already plenty of foreign companies have closed or scaled down their presence, journalists have also relocated to other locations which are out of bounds (for now) for the CCP. Many locals are also looking for a way out. Post-pandemic Hong Kong will forever be changed, and this will not only hurt business travel but also tourism. I feel for Cathay and their employees.

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