COVID vaccinations help Cathay freighters back into the air

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CATHAY Pacific operated 24 per cent more freighter flights and 18 per cent more cargo-only passenger aircraft frequencies in May – an encouraging sign that the Hong Kong carrier is recovering from the dramatic impact that the severe COVID governmental measures had on its main-deck crew management.

Last month, the Hong Kong SAR government loosened the mandatory severe COVID rules it had imposed from 20 February this year which required Hong Kong-based pilots and cabin crew members to undergo 14 days of enforced quarantine in a hotel and seven days of medical surveillance upon their return to Hong Kong immediately after duty flights. This strict requirement has now been lifted for fully vaccinated staff.

Some 90 per cent of the carrier’s pilots and more than 64 per cent of its cabin crew in Hong Kong have now either booked or received their vaccinations, according to Ronald Lam, chief customer and commercial officer at Cathay Pacific Group. “So far this year, there have been zero positive tests among the more than 44,000 tests that our operating Hong Kong-based aircrew have taken in the days following their arrival in Hong Kong,” he stresses.

“We hope many more people will get inoculated against COVID-19 to help build a vaccination barrier in Hong Kong that will enable the economy and international air travel to recover.”

READ ALSO: Cathay Pacific Airways records $2.8bn loss

The airline carried 92,394 tonnes of cargo and mail in the month, a decrease of 6.4 per cent on May 2020. Revenue freight-tonne-kilometres (RFTKs) fell by 16.9 per cent year-on-year. Although the cargo and mail load factor rose by 7.5 percentage points to 81 per cent, capacity, measured in available freight-tonne-kilometres (AFTKs), was 24.5 per cent down.

In the first five months of this year, in comparison with the same period in 2020, the airline’s tonnage carried dropped by 23.2 per cent, against a 37.3 per cent decline in capacity and a 25.5 per cent decrease in RFTKs.

“The relaxation of crew quarantine requirements in mid-April enabled us to gradually reinstate cargo capacity throughout May, although we are yet to return to our full freighter schedule due to crew rostering lead times,” Lam points out.

COVID vaccinations help Cathay freighters back into the air

Ronald Lam, Cathay Pacific Group’s chief customer and commercial officer 

“Last month, we operated 24 per cent more freighter flights and 18 per cent more cargo-only passenger flights than we did in April, providing more lift to meet demand from a reasonably buoyant air cargo market,” he reveals.

“Among all sales areas, Taiwan stood out last month with considerable export demand. We also experienced strong inbound and outbound demand on services to Asia, and to the Americas and Europe, which enabled our sales teams to maintain high load factors on these routes. Overall, our cargo load factor in May was 81 per cent.

The airline group is currently “cautiously” also adding more passenger flights and flying to more destinations. “Our current plan is that by the fourth quarter of 2021 we will be operating approximately 30 per cent of our pre-COVID-19 passenger capacity,” Lam states. “Overall cargo demand remains firm. Passenger belly capacity will remain constrained, but with quarantine restrictions easing due to the high uptake of vaccinations by our freighter crews, we will see a further resumption of our freighter frequencies from Hong Kong to various regions in our network.”

Meanwhile, the company has created Ultra Track, a multi-dimensional tracking product for pharmaceuticals, perishables and other special shipments, which is being introduced in phased stages at 25 ports across its network.

Lam points out: “With the cost-saving measures implemented in 2020 – which are continuing – and a strong underlying cargo performance, our losses in the first half of 2021, whilst still very substantial, are expected to be somewhat lower than the losses reported in both the first and second halves of 2020,” he admits.

Although the airline carried a total of 24,006 passengers last month – a 30 per cent increase on the same period last year – it was still a 99.2 per cent decrease in comparison with the pre-pandemic level of May 2019. Revenue-passenger-kilometres (RPKs) rose 24.5 per cent year-on-year, but were down 98.9 per cent on May 2019.

Cathay is continuing to add more passenger services to cater to demand from the Chinese mainland, the UK and the United States, and has also resumed flights this month to a number of other destinations, including Amsterdam, Brisbane, Frankfurt, San Francisco, Seoul and Vancouver.

Lam is cautiously positive about the airline’s long-term prospects. “Earlier this month, the Hong Kong SAR Government agreed to extend the drawdown period of the HK$7.8 billion loan facility for 12 months to 8 June 2022, which we welcomed. We also successfully raised HK$6.74 billion from a convertible bond issue in February and US$650 million under the Medium-Term Note programme last month.”

“Our continued ability to raise debt financing in the capital markets demonstrates the investing community’s ongoing confidence in our long-term prospects as a leading airline,” he insists.

During the pandemic, along with many international carriers, Cathay Pacific Cargo has been supporting global international humanitarian efforts to assist India and other nations by providing additional capacity for shipping essential medical supplies into the COVID-stricken sub-continent which is struggling to manage a second, more transmissive wave of Coronavirus. The carrier allocated space aboard a flight to carry, free-of-charge, 300,000 COVID-19 testing kits donated to India by the Government of Portland in the United States.

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