Flights to Hong Kong increased, but frequency still third of number to rival Singapore

Flights to Hong Kong increased, but frequency still third of number to rival Singapore

Travellers queue up for shuttle bus to quarantine hotels at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Aug 1, 2022. (Reuters photo)
Travellers queue up for shuttle bus to quarantine hotels at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Aug 1, 2022. (Reuters photo)

HONG KONG: Major airlines such as Cathay Pacific Airways have scheduled 12% more flights to Hong Kong next month compared with July, but the frequency is still less than a third of rival Singapore.

Airlines said Hong Kong's strict Covid-19 regulations for arriving aircraft crews remained a barrier to any increase in service.

But experts said Singapore and Hong Kong had taken different approaches to reopening to air travel and the latter's more cautious approach could be a benefit in the long run.

Cirium, an aviation analytics firm, said figures for about 40 carriers, including Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa, showed 926 flights to Hong Kong in June and 1,190 in July.

The company said airlines had scheduled 1,335 flights for August and 1,331 flights in September.

But flights scheduled for Singapore were more than three times the number of those destined for Hong Kong. Cirium said there were 4,215 flights in June rising to 4, 635 in July, 4,748 flights scheduled for August and 4,651 for September.

Flights into Bangkok were almost double that of Hong Kong at 1,928 in June, 2,460 in July, with 2,581 scheduled for this month and 2,555 for September.

"The major global airlines' schedules into Hong Kong remain speculative beyond October 2022," Cirium's Mike Arnott said. "This is in line with statements made by carriers like Cathay Pacific that adding flight capacity would be limited until flight crew restrictions are lifted."

Hong Kong shortened the compulsory hotel quarantine for arrivals from Aug 12 from seven days to "3+4" - three days of hotel quarantine and four days of home medical surveillance with limited freedom of movement.

Restrictions on crew remained in place with Hong Kong-based aircrews on passenger flights required to quarantine for three nights at a designated hotel on arrival. City-based cargo plane crews are exempt from the measure.

Foreign aircrews who have a layover in Hong Kong are subjected to a closed-loop system after a negative rapid antigen test at their departure point. They are taken to a hotel on arrival in Hong Kong and required to isolate in their rooms until they depart the city.

The Transport Bureau told the South China Morning Post on Friday the government would continue to "closely monitor the epidemic situation and review the quarantine arrangements for aircrew, as and when appropriate, on a risk-based approach, having regard to the need to safeguard public health while maintaining the smooth operation of air services in and out of Hong Kong".

Cathay Pacific's website showed it would increase flights, including planned daily flights, to Taipei, Manila, Bangkok, Tokyo, Jakarta, Sydney and London from October.

The carrier earlier said it planned to double its flight destinations from 29 at the start of the year to 60 by the end of December. It flew to 108 places before the pandemic hit.

Cathay Pacific carried 219,746 passengers in July, about four times more than in the same month last year, but 93.3% down from pre-pandemic levels.

A spokeswoman said that the airline welcomed the adjustments to quarantine for passengers and that it hoped there would be changes to restrictions placed on its pilots and cabin crew so it could increase flight capacity.

"These Covid-related operating constraints restrict our ability to mount additional capacity, despite growing demand," she said.

She highlighted a backlog in retraining for crews which could not be tackled until restrictions were dropped.

The spokeswoman explained flight capacity could only be gradually increased over several months after all Covid-related restrictions were lifted.

Cathay said it aimed to operate at 25% of pre-pandemic capacity for passenger flights by December, up from the 12.4% recorded in July.

Singapore, like other Asian countries, removed its Covid-19 restrictions in April, but mainland China and Hong Kong have stuck to a "dynamic-zero" Covid-19 policy that requires travellers to take coronavirus tests and undergo quarantine in hotels.

Singapore's Changi Airport led Asian aviation hubs in terms of international passenger traffic for the second quarter of this year, with Hong Kong not even making the top 10 and overtaken by numerous, smaller airports in the region.

But Shukor Yusof, founder of aviation advisory firm Endau Analytics, said Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific still had the edge over the Singapore and Singapore Airlines in the long term because the city was close to mainland China.

Hong Kong's strict Covid-19 rules had affected Cathay and the city, he said, but that was a "calculated risk" the authorities were prepared to run.

"It is not entirely about who has more frequencies," Yusof said. "This is not a case about who has more, wins. While it looks good on paper, clogged air connectivity can hurt airlines if they are overexposed."

Lufthansa flights to Germany will increase to once a day from Oct 30, and Swiss International Air Lines, operating one flight a week to Zurich at present, will increase its service to five flights a week in October.

Christoph Meyer, Lufthansa's group general manager for Hong Kong, said the group was still finalising its winter schedule and there could be amendments.

"In our planning, we have to consider both the travel restrictions for passengers as well as restrictions for our crews during the layover in Hong Kong," he said, adding the airline had also seen an uptick in demand from passengers.

Eva Airways, based in Taiwan, told the South China Morning Post it had increased its flight frequency from this month to daily flights from four flights a week.

Korean Air said it would maintain its one daily flight to Hong Kong, but would also continue to monitor the lifting of restrictions and "make plans to increase the number of our flights accordingly".

Emirates said "as of now" its winter schedule, which normally starts on Oct 30, would continue to operate one flight a day from Dubai to Hong Kong via Bangkok.

Virgin Atlantic extended its suspension of its London to Hong Kong flights to March 26 next year rather than resuming service in September as earlier planned because of "ongoing operational complexities" but said it "looked forward to returning to this important Asian hub".

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