Hong Kong has used its controversial flight suspension mechanism 23 times so far this month, more than once a day on average, with long-haul flights becoming a relative rarity at the city’s airport.

Aircrafts in the Hong Kong International Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: GovHK.

On April 1, the government revised its Covid regulations and scrapped a total ban on flights from nine countries, also shortening the quarantine period for arrivals to seven days. Only fully vaccinated Hong Kong residents are allowed to board inbound planes.

However, the flight suspension mechanism remains in place. Airlines are banned from flying a particular route for seven days if three or more passengers on a flight are found to be infected with Covid-19 upon arrival or fail to produce the required documents, including their health condition and travel history.

On Thursday alone, 11 routes were under a ban. In all, Hong Kong issued 23 flight suspension orders to 14 airlines between April 1 and Wednesday, according to the Centre for Health Protection.

Long-haul arrivals remain rare. There were two and three flights outside Asia on Wednesday and Thursday respectively.

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Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, warned that Hong Kong was “effectively off the map” just days after the travel restrictions were eased on April 1. He said the city “is going to lag significantly behind the recovery that we’re seeing elsewhere.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the Covid flight ban policy, saying that imported infections were probably due to “the very relaxed approach” adopted by many other places around the globe.

Suspension mechanism to be reviewed

Lawmaker Perry Yiu, who represented the Tourism Functional Constituency, criticised the flight suspension mechanism as “unreasonable and unscientific” during a Legislative Council meeting last week.

Yiu said the current mechanism was too strict and prevented airlines from carrying out normal operations.

Frank Chan. Photo: LegCo screenshot.

In response to Yiu, the Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan said he would review the policy with health authorities when the pandemic was under control and normalcy was restored.

Chan said he understood that the three-case limitation was “stringent.” However, he said the suspension mechanism was “an important threshold to protect Hong Kong from importing infections.”

On Wednesday the city recorded 668 new Covid cases, of which 13 were imported.

Meanwhile, the data provided by the Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) in response to an HKFP inquiry showed an increase in the number of passenger flights since April 1.

Specimen collection area at the Hong Kong International Airport. File Photo: GovHK.

The AAHK told HKFP that some airlines had refitted passenger aircraft to carry cargo only during the Covid-19 pandemic. But until April 1, the Hong Kong International Airport website and flight information display system had represented them as passenger flights.

Since the start of April, the AAHK said the airport has stopped displaying flight information for such flights to “avoid confusion.”

Because of the policy before April 1, there was an apparent dip in the number of passenger flights displayed to visitors this month.

However, the AAHK said its latest data showed that a total of 251 “flights carrying passengers” had operated at the city’s international airport from April 1 to 13, an increase of 77 from the period between March 19 to 31.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.