Hong Kong aviation

Airline licence body warns Hong Kong Express of possible action over ‘golden week’ cancellations

Budget carrier apologises to passengers affected, but says it helped all 2,070 affected book alternative flights, or gave them a refund

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2017, 11:31pm

The body that licenses airlines in Hong Kong has warned of possible action against Hong Kong Express over its raft of late-notice “golden week” cancellations.

That came as the budget carrier admitted the debacle was partly due to an exodus of safety trainers two months ago, that had affected its number of qualified crew members and pilots.

The Air Transport Licensing Authority demanded a report, explaining the disruptive cancellations, from the airline within a week.

Transport minister Frank Chan Fan, who criticised HK Express for having acted “irresponsibly”, also hinted the airline could have breached the terms of its licence.

The carrier made a public apology on Sunday, two days after it emerged it had pulled 18 regular flights between Hong Kong and Osaka, Nagoya and Seoul, scheduled to fly from October 1 to 8.

The cancellations caused travel headaches for many Hongkongers, during the “golden week” of public holidays.

The airline managers rejected Chan’s criticism. They said they had helped all 2,070 affected passengers book alternative flights, or given them a refund, in the past few days.

In a statement on Sunday, the authority said it had noted the cancellation saga and would “take necessary follow-up action on the matter”.

The Civil Aviation Department (CAD) had already ordered HK Express to explain itself.

Chan said: “All Hong Kong-based airlines must fulfil two requirements to retain their licences. They must protect the public interest and must guarantee enough staff and flights in service.”

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He said the authority and the department would independently decide on possible penalties after finishing their investigations, and that the government would review what happened, to avoid a repeat.

HK Express chief executive Andrew Cowen said on Sunday the company lost three key safety trainers and one training manager in August. The Post understands the trainers resigned after a dispute with senior managers.

He said that disrupted training for more than 700 cabin crew and pilots.

“Our overall cabin crew number is tighter than we would like,” Cowen said. He said maternity leave, illness and staff quitting the company had exacerbated the shortage.

On average, an airline needs 20 to 25 staff on standby each day to cover unexpected absences. But on September 24 the company discovered it was five to six standby staff short for each day from October 1 to October 8.

Cowen said senior managers were told of the shortage the next day, and decided to cancel the 18 flights the day after that.

The government was notified of the cancellations on Thursday and the public on Friday.

“If we had just continued the programme as planned, the risk was that we might find the limited number of standby crew was not enough to cover any sick leave, and we would then be cancelling flights on the days during the ‘golden week’,” he said.

The airline hired four new trainers in August, but they were still going through internal training before applying to the CAD for certification, Cowen said.

Currently, 48 cabin crew and three pilots are waiting for safety training.

Cowen said flights after October 8 should not be affected, because the level of standby staff would return to normal.

Additional reporting by Ernest Kao