Cathay Pacific hires 40 cadet pilots from mainland China, but flight crew union says Hong Kong airline can only cope with reduced operations

“While our cadet focus will be on Hong Kong, we realise that the source may be, in some regards, limiting,” Kempis said.

He explained the city’s lack of training facilities, flying schools and an air force made it “difficult” for someone in Hong Kong who wanted to be a pilot.

Chris Kempis, Cathay’s director of flight operations, says airline is focused on hiring in Hong Kong, but prospective pilots from the city face difficulties. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Kempis said Cathay Pacific’s present number of pilots, close to 2,600, was enough to keep services running.

Cathay hit the headlines after its decision to cancel at least 160 flights over the Christmas and New Year holidays, for what it said was a lack of pilots because of factors such as seasonal illness.

“We have sufficient pilots to meet our capacity and the size of our network right now,” Kempis said. “We’re not short of pilots at all to operate.”

“As we grow, we’ll need to employ more pilots, but we’re not short… and the main reason for that is, we have restructured the airline since Covid and the way our pilots are able to operate now.

“The way we now deploy our line pilots enables them to operate more efficiently. This results in them being able to contribute more, and that contribution is well-rewarded.”

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He said Cathay had bounced back to 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic services and was on course to meet its earlier target of 100 per cent by the end of the year.

Kempis said lessons had been learned from the Christmas period about rostering enough pilots to prevent a repeat of the crisis, especially in the run-up to the Easter holidays in late March.

“Going on to the Easter area, and any peaks in this year going forward, what we learned is the most important thing is to make sure we have the right pilots positioned with their hours and their reserve to ensure that we get through those peaks.”

Cathay introduced a special flying allowance between February 7 and 18 which offered pilots a payment of 15, 25 or 30 per cent of their respective hourly flying rate if they worked over the Lunar New Year holiday.

Kempis said there was a “high likelihood” the same deal would be offered again over Easter.

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But Paul Weatherilt, the chairman of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, said the company’s new rostering system had caused unhappiness among staff because of its lack of flexibility.

“I would push back very strongly against any notion that they have enough pilots,” he said.

He added the current headcount was enough for Cathay to scrape by with its reduced operations, but was nowhere near the numbers needed to operate at pre-pandemic levels.

“It is true to say that with the new system, which they spent a lot of money on… they probably can get more out of some pilots,” Weatherilt said.

“However, that does come with a cost because… if you push that too far, which they’re trying to do, all it means is that the satisfaction rate is low.

“There has to be a little bit of flexibility.”

The association said in a statement on Monday that Cathay Pacific remained “very short of experienced pilots” including captains and first officers, and that it would be “years before the recovery in pilot numbers is complete.”

It pointed out that, although the number of second officers – the rank of junior pilots after they finish cadet training – was close to pre-pandemic levels, there was a shortfall of 736 first officers and 555 captains compared with numbers in the fourth quarter of 2019.

The association said the company needed to carry out thousands of upgrade courses and induction training to return to levels before the coronavirus struck.

Cathay went through rounds of mass lay-offs throughout the pandemic. It made 6,000 staff redundant and shut down regional airline Cathay Dragon in 2020.


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