After more than a decade of flying, Cathay Pacific pilot Ian* is quitting the profession and preparing to leave Hong Kong, the city he has called home for most of his life. A spate of cockpit resignations has affected those still at work. “It feels like we’re flying with a depressed workforce,” the Hong Kong resident said. Many pilots were on leave for stress, others had resigned or were looking for jobs elsewhere, while some like him were quitting flying for good. “It’s becoming that desperate,” he said. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific will have rehired 180 local pilots by February A spokesman for Cathay Pacific Airways said the Hong Kong carrier was on a hiring blitz for local pilots, and aside from offering jobs to more than 180 local pilots by February, hoped to recruit hundreds more this year. He declined to reveal how many had resigned, but said the airline was doing all it could to retain its pilots while hiring available pilots in the city, including those left unemployed by the closure of Cathay Dragon. Those who had resigned or were considering leaving told the Post they found it hard to cope with Hong Kong’s Covid-19 rules, said to be the most restrictive in the world. While many countries globally have eased pandemic restrictions, including quarantine requirements for travellers and airline crew, Hong Kong has stuck with its “dynamic zero-infection” approach even as it faces a surge in infections of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Although city authorities have decided to cut the quarantine period for travellers from 21 to 14 days from February 5, strict social-distancing measures remain. A growing number of local Covid-19 cases have been linked to a Cathay flight attendant who violated home-isolation rules while carrying the Omicron variant. He was one of four employees of the airline found to have violated the internal regulations, according to the government. Two former flight attendants have been charged with violating the rules . The government is also investigating whether Cathay abused a quarantine exemption policy for cargo crew by allowing pilots of passenger flights to avoid hotel quarantine by returning on cargo planes and isolating at home instead. Cathay has insisted the practice was in line with regulations at the time. Pilots also complained about the stress of working with the airline’s “closed-loop” arrangement which meant flying back-to-back flights for three or four weeks, staying in hotel isolation between flights, and then spending another two weeks in hotel quarantine before returning home. Hong Kong has grown more isolated as aviation hub: global airline association Cathay introduced bonuses this month to encourage more pilots to fly under the unpopular voluntary arrangement. Paul*, a senior foreign pilot with a decade’s experience, said the arrangement took a toll and left his mental health in a “pretty bad” state from dealing with stress, the physical demands of the job and weeks of irregular sleep. Not knowing how long Hong Kong’s pandemic rules would remain, he was planning to resign. “I’ve been very, very patient and very tolerant coming on two years now. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes on for another two years and I don’t think I could hang on that long,” he said. He added that two out of three pilots he spoke to were looking for jobs elsewhere and if current restrictions continued, Cathay would see an exodus of pilots this year. The Cathay spokesman acknowledged that its pilots had stood by the airline “through what have been the toughest couple of years in our history”. But he added that aircrew had been offered periods of free time after their closed-loop assignments, financial incentives, options to take extended leave and regular sessions with a support team and senior management. Some pilots said that aside from the strict Covid-19 rules, they also faced public anger and abuse after aircrew were accused of flouting isolation rules. One pilot said he heard of a colleague being spat at by a member of the public, while others complained that taxis would not stop for them when they were in uniform. Cathay Pacific to face further legal action ‘if abuse of Covid-19 rules proved’ Steve*, another expatriate pilot on unpaid leave and exploring other options, said the stress and fatigue were serious and likely to affect those considering a flying career. “It is not the glamour industry it used to be,” he said. Paul believed Cathay’s ratio of expatriate to local pilots was changing, with expats making up those leaving while those being recruited were mostly locals. “A lot of the young local second officers live at home with mum and dad … It is really becoming a job for non-family, non-expat people,” he said. In the first half of 2021, Cathay imposed a range of permanent and temporary staff cuts. The group’s workforce fell by 2,500, to 23,100, on top of the record 5,900 jobs shed in October 2020 when it closed regional airline Cathay Dragon. Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation advisory firm Endau Analytics, said Cathay was using the pandemic to reassess its operations, including staffing. “It is expecting large numbers of expat pilots to resign and that is part of the overall plan to ‘redesign’ the composition of flight crew to a largely local, or rather, Asian one,” he said. Doing so would enable the airline to save on the cost of employing expatriate pilots, with those at Cathay said to be among the best paid in the world. It would also establish Cathay as a Chinese airline, not a Hong Kong carrier, he added. While there would be challenges in terms of staff shortages and a drop in morale, he did not expect them to last long as Cathay hired more pilots locally and from the region. Cathay capacity to be slashed following Hong Kong flight bans, new rules Andrew Yuen Chi-lok, of Chinese University’s Aviation Policy and Research Centre, said both the government and airlines needed to ensure the stability of the aviation workforce. “In the short term, airlines have to improve pilots’ benefits and working environment to retain them in Hong Kong,” he said. In the long run, however, it was important to recruit and train local pilots, he added. Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun said there was a price to pay for practising a zero-Covid policy, but he agreed that more needed to be done to enlarge the pool of local pilots. “You cannot have a Hong Kong airline where a lot of pilots have mobility around the world and are not rooted in Hong Kong. I have always been very much against that,” he said. *Names changed at interviewees’ request.