Hong Kong Covid: Airlines race to add flights to city, reviving hopes of recovery as aviation hub

Hong Kong
CNN business

International airlines are scrambling to add more flights to Hong Kong as the city ends at two and a half years of quarantine measures, causing an increase in travel demand.

The new measures came into force on Monday. Now, instead of being isolated in a hotel room for three nights, tourists and business travelers can return home or to another accommodation, provided they monitor their health for three days, including rapid tests for Covid.

As a result, airlines are seeing a huge surge in interest. Cathay Pacific (CPCAY), the city’s flag carrier, has set up a virtual “waiting room” for check-in on its website. Customers are told they can “queue” to access Cathay’s booking platform and then have 30 minutes to purchase tickets.

Cathay said on Friday it would add more than 200 flight services to regional and long-haul destinations in October, mainly by increasing capacity on routes to the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo.

The news brings much-needed relief to the carrier, which was forced to cut back to 2% of pre-pandemic levels during the global health crisis. “As Hong Kong’s home airline, we are fully committed to rebuilding the connectivity of Hong Kong’s aviation hub,” he said in a statement.

Lufthansa also told CNN Business on Monday that it would increase its capacity from Hong Kong, with a daily service between the city and Frankfurt starting this winter season.

“We welcome relaxation for travelers. This will significantly increase demand for travel to and from Hong Kong,” Christoph Meyer, Lufthansa’s general manager of sales for Hong Kong, Macao and South China, said in a statement.

But he warned that “restrictions remain for non-local aircrew”, referring to the need for staff not based in Hong Kong to quarantine in hotels.

Meyer called the requirement “a big concern” for airlines looking to increase flights to Hong Kong.

British Airways and Japan Airlines (JAPSY) plan to increase service to the southern Chinese city. On Friday, BA announced that “the first passenger flight from London to Hong Kong since December 2021 will depart on 5 December”.

“The flight will operate four times a week until December 18, after which the service will be daily from then on,” the company said in a statement.

The airline suspended service to Hong Kong last year due to strict quarantine requirements for its crew.

Japan Airlines will increase capacity between Tokyo and Hong Kong from October 31.

For more than two years, border restrictions have hampered Hong Kong’s role as a global aviation hub.

International Air Transport Association CEO Willie Walsh said last week that China’s zero-Covid policy had “ruined” Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong has lost its position as a global hub and will struggle to regain it because other centers have taken advantage,” he said.

Friday’s news puts Hong Kong back “on the right track,” said Dr. Kam Hung Ng, an assistant professor of aeronautical engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

He told CNN Business that Hong Kong still had advantages to allow its aviation industry to recover to pre-pandemic levels, “or even more”.

Hong Kong’s location makes it an international transportation and logistics gateway to many Asian destinations and mainland China.

“This is not something that can be easily changed,” said Ng, noting that the city is also an important part of China’s Greater Bay Area, an economic zone that connects Guangdong province with other territories.

With travel restrictions completely lifted, “demand will come back,” he predicted.

But there are still two main obstacles for carriers.

Companies need more workers, as many pilots retired or left the industry during the pandemic, Ng said. Even if these workers return, they will need retraining, which can take two to three weeks per person, he added.

Then the old aircraft must be literally dusted off. Several airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, have sent their planes to other countries for storage during the pandemic, so they will have to bring them back to undergo “all maintenance checks before serving the public,” Ng said. “It takes time.”

He said that could mean up to six months for some airlines to get all their planes checked out and ready to fly again.

Because of this, many travelers will not be back to normal anytime soon.

Australia’s Qantas ( QABSY ) said on Monday it was not changing its plans resume flights to Hong Kong in January 2023.

Korean Air told CNN Business in July that it had already increased the frequency of flights between Seoul and Hong Kong after previous quarantine measures in the Chinese city were eased. The airline is likely to maintain current levels for the foreseeable future, according to a spokesperson.

A Singapore Airlines spokesperson told CNN Business that it will be flexible on any adjustments Two daily flights to Hong Kong.

Xie Xingquan, IATA’s regional vice president for North Asia, welcomed the lifting of Hong Kong’s quarantine, but warned of the challenges facing businesses.

“The entire aviation value chain in Hong Kong must be ready for a surge in travel demand, similar to what we have seen in other markets, as soon as quarantine measures are lifted,” he said in a statement shared with CNN Business. .

“Having the necessary manpower is essential to avoid the problems seen at European and US airports,” he added.

In recent months there have been chaotic scenes at airports in Europe and the United States, with canceled flights, delays and long queues of passengers. The problem has largely been caused by high travel demand and understaffing, forcing airports in some cases to cut their capacity.

CNN’s Tom Booth contributed to this report.