Nearly 300 expatriate pilots working for Cathay Pacific and other airlines in Hong Kong have been waiting for months to hear whether their work permits will be renewed, raising fears they may have to leave the city they once called home.

Local pilots made redundant when the flag carrier’s subsidiary Cathay Dragon collapsed last October are meanwhile wondering why Cathay Pacific does not offer them jobs instead of keeping the foreign pilots on the payroll as they await visa renewals.

Photo: GovHK.

The Immigration Department told HKFP it received 278 applications for extensions of stay from non-local pilots and two new applications between January and May, all of which were being processed.

Expatriate pilots and their family members confirmed they knew of no visa extensions issued or denied in Hong Kong in recent months.

Prior to that, many in the industry had been given three-month work visa renewals instead of the usual two to three years, pilots told HKFP. As a result, more and more people were reluctantly making plans to exit Hong Kong given the uncertainty about renewal and about the general resumption of post-Covid air travel.

Photo: Supplied.

Alice, whose husband works as a pilot at Cathay, said the couple would start drawing up a relocation plan in about 10 weeks.

Her husband’s three-month work visa extension lapsed during the first week of June. He is now in a 90-day “grace period” where he will not be assigned any work, but will continue to receive full salary from Cathay as he awaits an immigration decision, Alice said, speaking to HKFP under a pseudonym.

She described a sense of confusion and “fear-mongering” amongst the expat pilot community as they failed to get straight answers about their immigration status. “They are scared that if they call the immigration department to check whatever is happening, there will be a marking on your papers and you will definitely be rejected,” she said.

“I cried when I found out [about the visa]. We didn’t want to leave Hong Kong but we probably will have to,” she said.

Photo: Supplied.

Pilots seeking visa renewals are also uncertain how long they will be paid. The payment for the 90-day period is not guaranteed by any company paperwork but is based on “word-of-mouth” from other pilots under identical circumstances, Alice said.

A WhatsApp group for pilots concerned with visa issues, with over 200 members, indicated confusion about the issue and about whether payments would continue after 90 days.

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, Cathay’s spokesperson said in a statement the company was “actively following up” work visa applications and would provide updates when possible. “We understand that this is causing considerable concern among some of our employees.”

Photo: GovHK.

Cathay Pacific slashed 5,300 jobs in Hong Kong last October. In addition about 540 pilots – including about 200 permanent residents – were made redundant when it announced the closure of its regional airline Cathay Dragon.

In June last year Cathay Pacific received a HK$39 billion bailout package led by the Hong Kong government. But business is still anaemic, with the number of passengers down by 99.3 percent in April compared to pre-pandemic levels two years ago.

Former Cathay Dragon pilots said the government rescue package was now supporting the payroll for expat pilots whose visa prospects remain unknown.

Local pilots

An online survey conducted by a former Dragon pilots concern group in early May found that among 175 respondents who were permanent residents, all but one were either unemployed or working in other jobs as they seek to return to the aviation industry.

Ben and Joey, who were mid-career local pilots until they were made redundant by Cathay Dragon, said they had since November sent numerous complaints to the Immigration Department, the Security Bureau, the Ombudsman and the Chief Executive’s Office about whether Cathay could justify hiring foreign pilots while hundreds of their local peers struggle to find jobs. They said they had received no substantial reply.

Aircrew at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Both spoke with HKFP on condition of anonymity as they are still hopeful of being rehired.

Under Hong Kong’s work visa programme, the General Employment Policy, employers may hire foreign nationals if there is a genuine job vacancy, if the job cannot readily be filled by the local workforce, and if there is a confirmed offer of employment.

Last year, Hong Kong saw 914 applications for entry and extensions of stay under the programme, a drop from 1,159 in 2019.

“The [visa sponsorship] form asks why [the airlines] cannot find someone locally. Whatever they write would be a lie,” said Ben, a pilot with about seven years’ flight experience.

Flight arrivals to Hong Kong dropped to record low during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Supplied.

Cathay said in a job advertisement on June 1 that it wanted to recruit permanent residents. But Joey, who was with Cathay Dragon for 10 years, said he was sceptical since the company continues to keep expat pilots on its payroll, even though there is little demand for air travel.

Both Ben and Joey said they believe the company preferred letting local pilots go rather than expatriates, as it would be far less costly to rehire qualified local pilots than hiring foreigners from overseas when mass air travel resumes. They believe the recruitment advertisement was a way to appease immigration officials.

“It is as if we used our own taxes to support these pilots on a visa,” Ben said.

Cathay Pacific said the recent recruitment drive was part of its “forward planning.”

“We will be looking to hire qualified talent who are already in Hong Kong and have the right to live and work here,” it said.

An Immigration Department spokesperson said it would not comment on individual cases but “will act in accordance with the immigration laws and policies.”

File photo: Benson Kua, via Flickr.

Unlike those employed under Cathay, expatriate pilots at another local airline in financial duress were fired as soon as their three-month visa renewal expired.

Paul was terminated by Hong Kong Airlines in early June, as soon as his three-month visa renewal expired, he told HKFP on condition of anonymity.

He said he believed the current visa limbo was untenable as more and more pilots would be forced to leave the city if their visas are not renewed or are pending indefinitely. If Hong Kong airlines could not find enough pilots to man its routes when mass air travel resumes, licences may be given to competitors from neighbouring countries, he said.

As the only breadwinner in the family with two young children and a wife, Paul said he is now forced to leave the city while his family stays behind on the mainland, where the cost of living is much lower.

While some Hong Kong pilots believe locals should be given preference in recruitment, Paul said expats also deserve some consideration given the scarcity of jobs globally.

“I’ve invested six years of my life here, this is not something that you [take] lightly,” he said. “I didn’t plan to stay in Hong Kong for seven years to get my [permanent residency], and then at seven years and one day, blast off and go somewhere else.”

“The reason I stay here all these days, is because I planned to stay in Hong Kong for the long run, to call Hong Kong my home.”

Update 16:18: The Immigration Department will approve all Cathay Pacific’s pilot visa renewal applications but will decline those for its foreign cabin crew, according to the airline’s staff memos on Thursday.

Update 20:50: All of the 280 applications for new pilot work visas and extensions of stay have been approved by the Immigration Department on Thursday, a spokesperson from the Transport and Housing Bureau said, hours after HKFP published.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.