“Huge safety issue”: Hong Kong pilots warn against COVID rules | Aviation News

Pilots who have worked in the aviation hub warned that Hong Kong’s “zero COVID” policy has made the crew’s working conditions unbearable, posing a potential safety risk.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the four current and former pilots in Hong Kong (who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue) stated that strict quarantine regulations would cause safety issues because they would affect the mental health and well-being of the crew.

The fifth pilot stated that although he believes the situation “has not yet reached that level,” the current policy is “breaking through the known limits.”

These measures include a “closed loop” system that can see the crew’s work A three-week roster during which they are confined to hotel rooms when they are not flying, And then the hotel quarantine for an additional two weeks. Under the voluntary system, some crew members have been quarantined for months without fresh air or exercise. The timetable also resulted in some crew members, many of whom were foreigners, not seeing their family members in their home country for a long time during the pandemic.

“I do think this is a safety issue, and a big safety issue,” a former pilot of Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific told Al Jazeera. “Will I now let my family fly on a Cathay Pacific airliner and know what they are going through? Honestly? No.”

The former pilot who left Cathay Pacific at the end of last year said that the fact that there have been no accidents up to now proves the “very good pilots” employed by the airline.

The pilot said: “If Cathay Pacific has an accident now, or it has happened in the past six months, or will happen in the next six months, this will be the key and core issue.” “What is the mental state of those flying these planes,” How many holes are lined up in Swiss cheese?”

Hong Kong AirportHong Kong implemented some of the strictest quarantine rules on the planet during the pandemic [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Another pilot who left Cathay Pacific to work in the United States last year told Al Jazeera that the current situation posed “a huge safety issue.”

The pilot said: “The crew is locked in an endless work/isolation cycle, without any opportunity to relax, exercise, socialize-these are all aspects of life that are vital to health and well-being.”

“From day one, pilots have been taught about the risks of distraction. A high priority is placed on keeping external issues out of the cockpit in order to stay focused on the safety-critical tasks at hand,” he said. “I hope no one breaks down, but people are very upset and emotionally exhausted.”

A pilot of competitor Hong Kong Airlines witnessed many colleagues resign and take sick leave to avoid flying. He told Al Jazeera that although he did not expect an accident that would cause “smoke on the ground,” he could see the tail hitting and landing. Or events such as runway overruns.

“My concern is that if time is normal, the crew may handle it safer and more accurately,” said the pilot who has not flown since the pandemic began. “But now with all these increased pressures and closed loops, their dependence on overcoming has decreased. This is my concern.”

Several pilots said that Cathay Pacific’s new contract launched in 2020 has increased the risk. The contract reduced the income of less frequent crew members by as much as 50% and encouraged employees to conduct closed-loop scheduling to make up for flight time.

“Can you imagine, even if they shouldn’t go to work, how much pressure is for pilots to go to work?” A cargo pilot from a European country currently employed by Cathay Pacific told Al Jazeera. “I think this is the main security issue.”

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department told Al Jazeera that if the crew have reason to suspect that they are mentally or physically unfit for flying, they are legally prohibited from working.

“in other words, [the] In this case, individual crew members have the responsibility to report that they are not fit to perform their duties.As [for] The Civil Aviation Department pointed out that all local airlines provide mental health support plans so that they can provide timely help or advice to crew members in need,” the spokesperson said.

“Airlines should make appropriate arrangements to meet relevant public health and flight safety requirements. The Civil Aviation Department will continue to monitor their arrangements to ensure that aviation safety will not be affected.”

A Cathay Pacific spokesperson acknowledged that the pandemic’s regulations “have placed a burden on our crew, and their behavior and professionalism during this difficult time are exemplary.”

“The environment is challenging for everyone, especially our crew. We continue to support our team by managing things we can control, such as free time after the closed-loop roster model, financial incentives, and extended vacation options. “The spokesperson said. “We have a bi-weekly conference call hosted by senior management to discuss and share issues. We have a pilot support team who keep in touch with pilots in the quarantine area. Our crew service team, our pilot assistance network And the company’s employee assistance program can provide assistance to individuals in need around the clock.”

The spokesperson added that the crew can withdraw from the closed-loop list “at any time without prejudice.”

A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Airport Authority said that the pandemic policy is formulated by the government, but the airport “maintains close communication with airport business partners” to comply with quarantine regulations.

‘Prison conditions’

Trevor Bok, an Asian aviation safety consultant, told Al Jazeera that conditions are causing stress and psychological problems, and “in roles that require high performance and attention levels” are causing concerns.

“These prison-like conditions-being isolated in hotel rooms along the way and returning from travel-now have a cumulative fatigue and stress effect on the pilots,” said Bok, whose consulting firm has offices in Hong Kong and Australia.

“Many people have endured for up to two years-especially cargo pilots-which not only affects morale, but also affects motivation and dedication, which, in turn, can lead to complacency and alertness/attention levels at critical moments. reduce.”

Under the “zero COVID” policy aimed at keeping up with mainland China, Hong Kong has transformed from one of the busiest tourist centers in the world to one of the most isolated cities. Despite the introduction of a vaccine last year, the city has repeatedly tightened border restrictions and quarantine rules, with little or no advance warning.

After discovering that two Cathay Pacific employees violated medical surveillance regulations, the authorities last week cancelled a limited number of existing crew quarantine exemptions, forcing all non-Mainland China passenger flights to use closed-loop employees.

Like other members of the public, crew members who test positive also face being sent to an isolation ward until they are discharged-this process takes at least 10 days, but may be indefinite-after which they will be sent to an isolation facility for another time Isolate for 14 days.

An aviation safety expert for a regional airline with direct knowledge of Hong Kong told Al Jazeera that the government is forcing airlines to “break the boundaries” to ensure operational safety.

The aviation safety expert said: “They are tolerable risks, but we are doing this because we are doing more than before, a little more than allowed by the rules in the past.”

Cathay PacificSome Cathay Pacific pilots feel that they are scapegoats because of the failure of the government’s “zero COVID” policy [File: Bobby Yip/ Reuters]

The expert said that although he expects airlines to refuse to fly if the risk is unacceptable, there is no “infinite bond of safety.”

“This is not to improve safety, the first thing I want to tell you is,” he said of the city’s pandemic regulations. “As far as I can see, I don’t think the government really cares.”

Due to the difficulty in complying with the epidemic regulations in the former British colony, several international airlines, including Swiss International Air Lines, British Airways and Air Canada, have suspended flights to Hong Kong in recent weeks. World Cities in Asia”.

On Wednesday, due to the outbreak of the Omicron variant in the community, the Hong Kong government temporarily banned flights from eight countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. According to the South China Morning Post, Cathay Pacific said on Thursday that it will cut cargo capacity and passenger flights by approximately two-thirds and 80%, respectively, at least until the end of the month after the ban is implemented and quarantine regulations are strengthened.

The pilots who spoke to Al Jazeera also described their frustration as a scapegoat for the government’s failure to maintain a zero infection target, which many medical experts believe is unrealistic and unsustainable.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam summoned Cathay Pacific’s president and chairman last week to express “strong dissatisfaction” with his employees’ violations. The local media also targeted the airline. The South China Morning Post published an editorial on Sunday with the headline “All Hong Kongers must now pay for Cathay Pacific’s failure to quarantine.”

In 2019, after the Chinese aviation regulatory agency stated that crew members participating in democratic demonstrations in the city would be barred from entering mainland airspace, Cathay Pacific was under pressure. Its largest shareholder was the British colonial conglomerate Swire Group, which prompted its chief executive at the time. Executive Rupert Hogg warned that if they support or participate in “illegal protests,” they will be fired. Hogg resigned shortly afterwards and was responsible for “recent incidents.”

The European cargo pilot said: “We seized the opportunity, went to work, brought the supplies back to Hong Kong, and then we had to see in the newspaper that we were bad guys.” “It would hurt morale. Besides, we knew if something happened, there was no People will support us.”