Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific has announced plans to adjust pilots’ pay to reduce losses resulting from roster changes amid complaints from aircrew about the airline’s hours-based contract and pay cuts.

Aircrafts park near Cathay Pacific Building.
Aircrafts park near Cathay Pacific Building. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Cathay said in a statement issued on Thursday that the move would “bring further stability” to pilots’ pay from January next year, compensating up to 50 per cent of any shortfall in hours that arose from changes to their duties, such as flight cancellations or delays.

Hong Kong’s flagship carrier has seen an exodus of pilots since it introduced new contracts for all aircrew during the pandemic in 2020 during the pandemic. HKFP has reported on an ensuing lack of morale sparked by significant cuts to the salaries of most pilots.

The new contract changed the way pilots were paid, moving from a guaranteed salary to a more flight hours-based system, at least 30 per cent of which was what the company called “a productivity pay.” According to the current contract, cancellations of flight duties result in pay losses.

Cathay aircrew, pilots and flight attendants
Pilots and flight attendants walk out of the airport. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Under the allowance being introduced in January, Cathay said that if a pilot’s flight hours were decreased due to “company-initiated roster changes,” the carrier would try to assign new duties to minimise the associated losses.

“If these hours cannot be replaced within the month, pilots will be compensated up to 50% of the shortfall in hours,” the company said.

Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the Cathay pilots’ union the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association and a captain with Cathay, told HKFP on Friday that the allowance would “have little effect on morale,” as it only offered to replace up to half of what was lost. But he added the “move seems like a small step in the right direction.”

Shortage in pilots

The union leader has been calling on the carrier to address pilot’s morale and raising concerns about what he said was a massive shortage of pilots, especially senior ones. 

Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association
Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association(HKAOA) in the office of the union. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to union estimates, nearly 1,000 pilots had resigned over the past three years, most of whom were senior staff – experienced captains and those providing training to junior ones.

Jack Bennett, general manager aircrew at Cathay Pacific, told HKFP in August that the company had made a few changes this year to ensure competitive renumeration despite a severe hit during the pandemic.

Like many airlines globally, Cathay took a severe hit during the pandemic and accepted a HK$39 billion government-led bailout in June 2020, which the airline has to buy back in the form of preference shares.

In August, it posted its first half-year profit since pandemic, vowing to “share the success” with its staff. It has also set a target of restoring 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity by the end of this year, and 100 per cent by the end of next year.

Hong Kong Airport covid
Hong Kong International Airport in July 2022 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Traffic figures released on Wednesday showed that Cathay had carried almost 1.8 million passengers last month, however that was still far below the 3 million passengers in August 2019.

Bennett said that Cathay had increased the basic salary by 3.3 per cent this year, while improving several pilot allowances, and offering a bonus of up to six-weeks’ pay. In 2022, the airline raised average pay for aircrew by 1.5 per cent and provided a discretionary bonus of up to one-month pay to eligible staff.

Cathay will also adopt a new calculation model for pilots’ working hours from October, the carrier announced in June.

The move came after pilots complained that their pay was largely based on actual time spent flying, which means they would be paid less if they arrived at destinations earlier than expected.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She previously worked at Initium Media as chief editor for Hong Kong news and was a community organiser at the Society for Community Organisation serving the underprivileged. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Irene is the recipient of two Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards and three honourable mentions for her investigative, feature and video reporting. She also received a Human Rights Press Award for multimedia reporting and an honourable mention for feature writing.