Hong Kong airlines have slashed their number of flights in an attempt to weather the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Flagship carrier Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Cathay Dragon announced on Friday that it will reduce its capacity for passengers by 96 per cent in April and May due to a “severe drop” in demand, following worldwide travel restrictions. Similarly, budget airline Hong Kong Express has said it will halt flights entirely from Monday onwards until April 30.

Cathay Pacific planes at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

First detected in China’s Hubei province, Covid-19 has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, leading to at least 10,000 deaths across 160 countries and territories. Hong Kong has reported 208 cases of infection and four deaths.

‘Unprecedented’ challenges

Cathay Pacific Chief Customer and Commercial Officer Ronald Lam said in a press release that the airline intends on only maintaining the minimum number of flights to and from key destinations: “While our freighter network remains intact, we are also ramping up our cargo capacity by mounting charter services and operating certain suspended passenger services purely for airfreight to meet cargo customer demand.”

“We need to take difficult but decisive measures as the scale of the challenge facing the global aviation industry is unprecedented. We have no choice but to significantly reduce our passenger capacity as travel restrictions are making it increasingly difficult for our customers to travel and demand has dropped drastically,” he added.

A Hong Kong Express plane. File photo: Wikicommons.

Cathay Pacific said it will operate three flights per week to Heathrow Airport in London, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Taipei, New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore and Sydney respectively. Cathay Dragon will operate three flights per week to Beijing, Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Kuala Lumpur respectively.

Hong Kong Express said 23 of its 25 routes in Asia-  consisting of roughly 2,000 flights – had already been cancelled.

“We are looking to resuming flight operations on 1 May 2020 and closely monitoring the development of the situation,” its statement read. Passengers affected by the suspension may opt for a full refund, date or route change to their original itinerary.

Asked on Friday whether the government would assist the aviation industry, transport chief Frank Chan did not directly answer: “[W]e are given to understand that the company will take good care of the passengers and also their staff despite the decision to suspend air flight operation from now… until end of April.”

To cope with the influx of students returning from abroad, the Hong Kong government asked Cathay to arrange additional flights from the US and UK this week. Almost all of the newly-confirmed cases in the city had been imported in from Europe and other countries.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.