Bookings for United Airlines flights between Hong Kong and the US have been “stronger than expected” for the coming months, the American carrier has said, but cautioned more time was needed to restore passenger traffic to pre-pandemic levels. Expressing confidence in Hong Kong’s recovery, United’s director of Greater China, Korea and Southeast Asia sales, Walter Dias, said the load factor – a measure of how well an airline was filling available seats – was almost 97 per cent on its first daily nonstop service from Hong Kong to San Francisco on Monday. The Chicago-based carrier relaunched services to San Francisco on Monday after suspending flights along the route in February 2020 after the city imposed travel and quarantine restrictions on passengers and crew due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While it briefly resumed that July, it mostly flew cargo-only flights in and out of the city. “We decided to restart it with a 777-300, which is the largest aircraft in our fleet and we decided to go right to daily service. So that demonstrates our confidence in Hong Kong and our commitment,” Dias said. The relaunch was a milestone for the carrier because Hong Kong was a “critical point” in its Asia-Pacific network, he said. During the pandemic, it dropped to just two flights to the region from 33. It now operates 20 routes. Dias said that bookings for Hong Kong for March to May were “stronger than we expected” but declined to give details. The carrier would “carefully gauge” demand before adding more routes. But Dias admitted that overall passenger traffic between Hong Kong and the United States was “way down”, as Asia-Pacific, including mainland China, lagged behind other markets that had opened up faster. “There’s still a long way to go to rebuild the traffic in both directions,” said Dias without giving a time frame. Coronavirus: United Airlines suspends US flights to and from Hong Kong After the pandemic erupted, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways was the only airline flying non-stop to the United States. United is one of the four big US carriers and is the sole American carrier currently flying to the city. Dias said a possible addition could be a second San Francisco-Hong Kong flight, but because of the war in Ukraine, a flight to Newark was not possible as that would require flying over Russia. After flight bans were imposed on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow retaliated by closing its airspace to countries and airlines it considered hostile. United Airlines crew in Hong Kong in last-ditch effort to save jobs The airline, which started operating in Hong Kong in 1983, also closed its local cabin crew base in 2020, with 319 jobs lost, and Dias revealed there were no plans to reopen it. According to aviation analytics firm Cirium, United was running a daily service between Hong Kong and Chicago, Newark and San Francisco, totalling 90 flights per month in 2019. The city is on the path of recovery following the end of Covid-19 restrictions on international arrivals in December and the ensuing resumption of quarantine-free travel with the mainland. But it has lagged behind other markets that have opened faster. Hong Kong’s air passenger traffic in January reached 32 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels, with the airport handling 2.1 million travellers. Hong Kong airport left far behind as Singapore Changi takes No 1 spot Rival Singapore’s Changi Airport, meanwhile, handled 4.37 million travellers in January, about 77 per cent of 2019 levels. Other foreign carriers have been seeking to resume or increase flights to Hong Kong, with British Airways announcing on Tuesday that it would double its flights between London and Hong Kong from seven to 14 per week this month. But foreign airlines have been hampered by labour shortages at Hong Kong International Airport. Last week the Post reported that several airlines had delayed resuming or increasing flights to Hong Kong owing to a lack of ground staff. Labour shortages at airport threaten to ground Hong Kong’s aviation hub recovery Among them was Australian carrier Qantas, which the Post learned had again delayed resuming flights between Melbourne and Hong Kong – planned for this month – because of staff shortages at its ground handling company and fee increases. The carrier now forecasts its Melbourne to Hong Kong route will resume in June. Dias said United had not encountered labour issues when restarting its service and had retained front-line staff at the airport over the past three years to solve any problems. He said the carrier would also be interested in an interline arrangement with newcomer Greater Bay Airlines, which recently signed an order with US aircraft giant Boeing for 15 737 MAX, as it seeks to fulfil an ambitious plan to fly to 104 routes, including 48 to the mainland, over the next five years. Hong Kong’s Greater Bay Airlines orders 15 Boeing jets, gears up for new routes Independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said that while foreign airline capacity was starting to come back, it would take time. He expected labour issues to ease over the next few months. An imbalance where capacity has yet to catch up with the increasing demand would also continue to push up airfares. “It will take some time before supply can catch up with demand, resulting in a normalisation of fares,” he said. According to Cirium, United’s economy class fares were up 15 per cent, and business class up 26 per cent compared with 2018.