Could Hong Kong’s strict (and arguably unfair) quarantine requirement lead to Cathay Pacific being banned from flying to the US? A new US Department of Transportation (DOT) filing suggests that this could be the case.
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Hong Kong’s crew quarantine requirement
In February Hong Kong introduced a strict new quarantine requirement for airline crews. With this, pilots and flight attendants returning to Hong Kong are subjected to a 14-day quarantine in a hotel, plus seven days of medical surveillance thereafter.
Hong Kong has had a strict quarantine requirement for around a year now, but historically airline crews have been excluded from this. However, with some coronavirus cases being linked to airline crews, Hong Kong has added these new requirements, which have caused airlines to totally rework how they crew flights.
There are a few interesting exceptions, though. This quarantine requirement doesn’t apply to crews that just work direct turnarounds, as well as crews operating flights to mainland China, Taiwan, or Anchorage. The Anchorage exception may seem random, but conveniently Cathay Pacific has a major cargo hub there.
Cathay Pacific Cargo has a major hub in Anchorage
FedEx isn’t happy with Hong Kong
FedEx got the US DOT involved in this situation. The cargo airline has historically had 180 pilots based in Hong Kong, who were essential to maintaining the carrier’s intra-Asia network. However, the quarantine requirement has made it impossible for the airline to maintain its Hong Kong crew base.
FedEx moved its Hong Kong-based crews to San Francisco in order to “maintain the viability of critical operations in its intra-Asia network,” but it’s noted that this arrangement is causing the airline to “incur significant operational costs and personal burden” on pilots.
FedEx is unhappy because Hong Kong unilaterally made an exception for Anchorage, which benefits Cathay Pacific. FedEx has sought to work with Hong Kong to establish an exception for intra-Asia service points, as it’s argued that “FedEx applies health and safety controls for its intra-Asia operations commensurate to those required for Anchorage.”
FedEx has relocated its Hong Kong pilots to San Francisco
Cathay Pacific could be banned from the US
This is where the situation gets fun. The US DOT has indirectly threatened to ban Cathay Pacific. Here’s what this boils down to:
- The bilateral agreement between the US and Hong Kong calls for “fair and equal opportunity for the designated airlines of each Contracting Party to compete with the designated airlines of the other Contracting Party”
- It’s argued that Hong Kong is providing preferential treatment to Cathay Pacific, given the unilateral and arbitrary decision to make an exception for Anchorage
- The DOT has tried contacting Hong Kong authorities to address this, but a January 28 letter went unanswered until March 1; even then, authorities in Hong Kong only promised to consider other exceptions, with no timeline provided
- The DOT has decided that “this imbalance denies US carriers their bilateral right to a fair and equal opportunity to compete”
- The DOT is now requesting that all Hong Kong airlines (primarily Cathay Pacific) file their schedules for US service within seven days, and then the US will decide if these schedules “may be contrary to applicable law or adversely affect the public interest”
Put more plainly, if Hong Kong doesn’t carve out exceptions for FedEx’s pilots, then you can expect that the US will stop Cathay Pacific from operating its schedule to the US.
Cathay Pacific now has to file its US schedule with the DOT
My take on this spat
I commend the DOT for flexing its muscles here, because the organization is spot on. Hong Kong arbitrarily carved out a quarantine exception for pilots flying to Anchorage, which benefits Cathay Pacific.
Meanwhile a US cargo airline has 180 pilots based in Hong Kong who exclusively operate intra-Asia flights, but they’re not getting equal exceptions. How do you justify allowing pilots to skip a quarantine if they’re coming from Anchorage, but not if they’re coming from Singapore, for example?
I’ll be curious to see if this suddenly makes Hong Kong reconsider its stance, or if we see Cathay Pacific banned from operating flights to the US. There is a certain irony to US authorities specifically standing up for Hong Kong-based employees here.
Also, while I do think that Cathay Pacific is getting preferential treatment here, the reality is that the airline hasn’t exactly otherwise been well protected by the government during the pandemic.
The quarantine rules do seem unfair towards FedEx
The US and Hong Kong are in a disagreement over their bilateral air services agreement. Hong Kong is requiring extended quarantines for Hong Kong-based crews, but it has carved out a special exception for Anchorage. That exception greatly helps Cathay Pacific, while FedEx has had to relocate its Hong Kong-based pilots due to this rule, given that they’d just perpetually be in quarantine.
What do you make of this situation?