Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific cabin crew union steps up threats of industrial action, warns of possible delays

A union of Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific cabin crew has stepped up threats of industrial action, warning that travellers could expect flight delays if the company continues to ignore its demands.

A Cathay Pacific flight. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, the union said the airline had refused to address cabin crew’s concerns about long working hours and staff shortages, despite calls for dialogue since 2021.

“We cabin crew are also humans. We are not robots with an on-and-off switch,” Grace Siu, vice-chairperson of the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union said. “When we are so overworked, can we still guarantee passengers’ flight safety at 30,000 feet in the air?”

The union said it could be forced to implement “work-to-rule” action – when employees only do as much work as is stipulated by their contracts – to place pressure the company.

Siu said that per company guidelines, cabin crew have up to seven minutes to complete security checks before boarding a plane, but normally, they would “speed up” the process to be more efficient. But under the work-to-rule campaign, and because of attendants’ fatigue, they could take the full seven minutes, potentially causing delays to flights.

The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union at a press conference on Dec. 30, 2022. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

“That is the possible cost or consequence of work-to-rule,” Siu said, adding that she apologised to passengers in advance.

The union did not give a timeframe for the campaign, but added that the busy Lunar New Year travel season could be an “opportunity” for action.

Siu said she hoped the company would address the union’s concerns so it would not need to resort to action that would affect travellers.

‘No need for concern’

Despite the union’s warnings, Cathay Pacific reassured the public on Friday that operations would be unaffected.

“Cathay Pacific can assure our customers that our flight services will continue as scheduled and there is no need for concern. We are confident that our cabin crew will continue to work in the same professional manner they have throughout the pandemic,” the airline said in a statement.

The airline added that it had met with the union twice this month, and have extended an invitation to union representatives to meet again in February.

Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“As we move forward into 2023 on the road to recovery, we need to continue to work together as one team to service our customers and to rebuild the Hong Kong international aviation hub to its former status, with Cathay Pacific at its centre,” it said.

The union’s renewed threats of industrial action came as Hong Kong International Airport expected to see an uptick in air traffic amid recent Covid-19 travel relaxations. Over the past two weeks, the city has dropped an on-arrival PCR test requirement and a ban on entering restaurants for travellers’ first three days in the city.

‘Deep scars’

Manpower cuts, a new rostering system and reduction in rest times during layovers were among the factors leaving Cathay Pacific’s cabin crew fatigued, the union said.

The airline had also increased passenger capacity while reducing staff.

While the company signed an agreement with the union years ago stipulating a minimum rest time, Cathay Pacific had “used Covid as an excuse” to significantly shorten the duration, the union said.

A candidate at Cathay Pacific’s flight attendant recruitment day on October 7, 2022. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The union and colleagues are of course willing to go through these hard times with the company together and to accept those arrangements,” Siu said. “But with more flights resuming… and some flights even full, [the company] has not brought back the minimum rest time.”

The union’s complaints also centred around a rostering system introduced last year. Under the mechanism, some cabin crew members were not assigned shifts on long-haul flights. Flight attendants rely on the additional allowance given to those flying long-haul flights to boost their income, as their base salary can be as low as HK$9,100.

“We want no more than reasonable [flight] patterns, reasonable manpower and reasonable pay… the unwillingness to consider the needs of employees only leaves deep scars,” an open letter written to Cathay Pacific’s CEO Augustus Tang last month read.

The airline said on Friday that rostering issues raised previously have “already been resolved for the January roster.” The union said, however, that it continued to receive similar complaints from members.

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