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Cathay Pacific restarts limited cargo service after COVID pause

Hong Kong carrier copes with aggressive health protocols

Cathay Pacific plans to operate about four freighters this month, down from 20, because of COVID rules that have reduced its pilots force. (Photo: Flickr/TJDarmstadt CC BY 2.0)

Cathay Pacific will partially resume long-haul cargo service on Friday following a weeklong suspension tied to Hong Kong’s more aggressive quarantine measures for cockpit crews and operate at about a fifth of its pre-pandemic cargo capacity for the month of January, FreightWaves has learned. The reduction in scheduled flights will impact significantly impact shippers with contracts for transportation service.

The combination airline last week grounded freighters serving the Middle East, Europe, North America and Southwest Pacific after health authorities increased the quarantine period for Hong Kong-domiciled crews from three to seven days, reducing the number of available pilots. On Wednesday, the government banned flights from Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Britain and the U.S. for two weeks amid fears of another COVID outbreak. 

Short-haul regional cargo service will remain intact, a spokesperson said in an email message.

In total, the company plans to operate at 20% of its pre-pandemic cargo capacity this month, mostly through the use of all-cargo aircraft, as it adjusts to the longer isolation period for containing the omicron variant. Cathay has been operating at about 70% of its 2019 cargo capacity for the better part of a year because of the strict Hong Kong rules, which at one point required a 14-day quarantine for crews.

Cathay will only operate seven freighters per week through March, down from 34, on the transpacific eastbound and no freighter service to Europe through March, with an exception for the busy Lunar New Year week, according to an updated schedule posted on the Cargo division’s website.

Regional cargo-only passenger flights will operate as scheduled in the first quarter, while services to The Americas will remain suspended in January. A skeleton schedule for passenger-freighters is in effect for Europe and the Southwest Pacific.

“We are assessing options to increase long-haul cargo-only passenger capacity in February, however, this is likely to be limited,” Cathay Pacific Cargo said. The carrier also said it is exploring alternative operating modes to increase long-haul freighter capacity beyond the base schedule, “however, such capacity is likely to be limited and will take time to implement.”

Normally, the carrier heavily relies on its widebody passenger fleet to carry a large chunk of its cargo volume, but will only activate about 2% of its 2019 passenger flight capacity. That is only slightly less than the 2.5% to 3% passenger capacity it has been operating at for the bulk of the pandemic.

We will adopt measures to operate as many cargo services as possible while complying with the latest COVID-19 regulations,” the statement said. “It will also strive to maintain passenger connectivity with key destinations, although at reduced frequencies, under the confines of the place-specific and flight-specific suspension mechanism.”

Cathay is facing additional scrutiny from authorities because five of its aircrew recently tested positive for COVID during their testing and isolation period. The company said the crew members violated company safety rules and fired two of them.

Hong Kong is following China’s zero-tolerance policy for COVID. Harsh social distancing measures are being implemented again as cases of the omicron variant grow, frustrating many local businesses trying to stay afloat.

Cathay is one of the largest air cargo companies in the world by volume and operates a fleet of 20 Boeing 747 freighters. The shutdown of aircraft exacerbates already tight market conditions that have resulted in record high airfreight rates as major seaports and airports remain clogged amid robust consumer and industrial demand for goods.

The anti-COVID policies and border restrictions, along with travel measures in other countries, have decimated Cathay’s passenger business. The carrier has no domestic market to buffer the near-total loss of international passenger revenue. Cargo volumes are down by a third from 2019 levels, but revenues have still been strong because of the high rate environment and are a lifeline during the crisis. The goverenment’s COVID measures began to reduce Cathay’s capacity early last year and eventually forced FedEx Express to move its pilot base

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. 

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]