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Hong Kong aviation

HK Express chief sacked after flight cancellation chaos during holiday period

Budget airline has been plunged into turmoil after sudden flight cancellations caused chaos for thousands of holidaymakers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 5:37pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 11:11am

Hong Kong Express sacked its chief executive officer on Wednesday after the budget airline came in for severe criticism for causing travel chaos during the busy holiday season with a series of unexpected flight cancellations.

Sources said president Jimmy Ma had also left, as parent company HNA Group stepped in to dismiss chief executive officer Andrew Cowen and order a wider management shake-up at HK Express.

Zhong Guosong, vice-chairman of sister budget carrier Hong Kong Airlines, was appointed executive chairman and acting CEO with immediate effect, HK Express said in a statement.

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

Zhong also issued a statement on Wednesday night, saying his priority was “to fully understand what has transpired in the airline recently”and “to lead the management team to form a strategy and implement any necessary changes in order to improve our operations”.

Zhong also mentioned that Cowen “has been redesignated with immediate effect”, but a source said he was unlikely to take an alternative job offer from HNA as it was too “junior” for him.

Human resources director Christopher Thomas was replaced by Stanley Yau, a counterpart at Hong Kong Airlines.

On September 24, HK Express abruptly cancelled 18 flights between Hong Kong and Seoul, Osaka and Nagoya from October 1 to 8 – ruining travel plans of some 2,000 passengers during the busy “golden week” National Day holiday period.

Cowen explained then that the company had lost three key safety trainers and a training manager in August. The Post understands the resignations followed a dispute with senior managers and caused significant disruption for more than 700 cabin crew and pilots, who could not fly until their safety licences were renewed.

Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Department (CAD) rejected accusations that a lack of oversight on its part had allowed the fiasco, insisting it had repeatedly pressed HK Express for a full explanation of changes to its training methods.

In a statement on Wednesday, the department confirmed it had recently approved the airline’s application to extend by one month the original requirement of having its cockpit and cabin crew undergo safety training every 12 months.

“It’s a matter of aviation safety. Crews need to be kept up-to-date about safety procedures,” said Cabin Crew Federation general secretary Carol Ng Man-yee, who had previously declared there was “no way” the CAD could not have known there were problems at HK Express.

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“You can’t just extend it because your company is short on manpower.”

The department revealed on Wednesday that the airline had cancelled a scheduled assessment for a safety trainer in mid-August in a “sudden and unusual” manner.

The department sought a meeting with HK Express management and was told that all of the safety trainers would resign shortly, but no exact date of departure was given.

The department demanded the airline provide more details and explain how it would deal with the situation. It again requested an update in early September.

The airline replied that it had found a short-term remedy, which was to hire two coaches who had earlier resigned, and another two on contract terms.

“Subsequently, [the airline] notified the CAD in writing in mid-September that the company had formally filled the vacancies in the safety training department and the newly recruited trainers were undergoing relevant internal training,” the department said. HK Express also confirmed that its recurrent safety training of crew had resumed.

“Based on the above considerations, the CAD has reasonable grounds for believing that the flight safety and flight operations of HK Express would not be affected,” the department said.

Separately, HK Express cancelled five flights on October 3 and October 4. A spokeswoman said this was unrelated to the 18 flight cancellations announced on September 24.

Two of the five flights in question, UO 624 and UO 625 to and from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, were cancelled in early August, and the airline had made arrangements for the passengers affected.

She added that no guests were affected for the remaining three flights as no tickets were sold. They were of UO 2546 from Hong Kong to Zhangjiajie in China, UO 2547 from Zhangjiajie to Hong Kong, and UO 5568 from Hong Kong to Da Nang in Vietnam.