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Hong Kong aviation

What is the fallout from the Hong Kong Express ‘golden week’ cancellations debacle?

City’s sole budget carrier endures a tough week, with manpower shortage exposed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 10:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 June, 2018, 6:44pm

The recent Hong Kong Express cancellations, which hit last week and threatened the travel plans of thousands over the “golden week” holiday, have exposed some fundamental operation and management weaknesses at the airline. It has also pushed staff to organise, with workers urging the company to improve conditions and open talks about industrial issues.

How many local budget airlines are there in Hong Kong?

Launched in October 2013, Hong Kong Express is the city’s sole budget airline, with a fleet of 21 planes. Jetstar Hong Kong, another budget carrier, had been trying to get off the ground since 2012, but Hong Kong authorities finally rejected its licence application in 2015. And the city’s first low-cost carrier Oasis Hong Kong, which operated long-haul flights from Hong Kong to London and Vancouver, shut down in 2008, after only 18 months.

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But despite being the city’s only low-cost airline, HK Express faces increasingly fierce competition from regional budget rivals operating in Hong Kong, such as Singapore’s Tiger Airways, Japan’s Vanilla Air and China’s Spring Airlines. And the competition may soon get fiercer, with Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways considering joining the game by offering discount fares that could match those of low-cost operators.

What happened last week, and what did it expose?

HK Express cancelled 18 flights between Hong Kong and three cities in Japan and South Korea from October 1 to October 8, affecting thousands of passengers travelling during the Chinese National Day “golden week” holiday.

Managers admitted the cancellations were due to an exodus of safety trainers two months ago, that had affected its number of qualified crew and pilots. But they said they had helped all 2,070 affected passengers book alternative flights, or given them refunds.

The Air Transport Licensing Authority, which licenses airlines in Hong Kong, warned of possible action against the carrier, and transport minister Frank Chan Fan hinted the airline could have breached the terms of its licence.

The debacle has exposed a string of problems at the airline. Besides manpower problems, crew members have long complained about poor management such as a tendency to operate skeleton staff rosters and overbooking flights.

Now more than half of its 370 Hong Kong cabin crew are preparing to join the Cabin Attendants Union, a catch-all group for staff at smaller carriers and contractors who aren’t numerous enough to run their own independent union.

What protection do consumers have in the event of a cancellation?

There is no law in Hong Kong to protect consumers hit by flight cancellations. Passengers largely rely on travel insurance for refunds.

And while people are lured by budget airlines’ lower fares, the city’s consumer watchdog has warned that flying with them could end up costing more than flying with higher-end carriers.

A 2015 council survey of 10 low-cost carriers flying from Hong Kong found that most failed to give passengers timely information in the event of delays or cancellations. They mostly relied on emails or their website to provide updates. The council got 764 complaints against low-cost operators in 2014, 10 times more than in 2012. Hidden costs, delays, cancellations and service quality were among common reasons for complaints.

What advice did the Consumer Council offer to passengers flying with low-cost airlines?

Passengers travelling with budget airlines must check their emails frequently the day before departure, the council said. It also suggested affected passengers keep all payment records, such as hotel bookings and other expenses incurred because of a flight delay or cancellation, that can be used as proof when demanding compensation.

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