The first round of mandatory aircrew tests found four cases of infection, including three pilots working for Hong Kong Air Cargo, a unit of Hong Kong Airlines, who had just returned from Almaty in Kazakhstan, according to the South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong health authorities tightened testing rules earlier this week after a 54-year-old cargo pilot tested positive for the coronavirus on July 4 following trips to Kazakhstan and Turkey.
In response, United Airlines has canceled flights to-and-from Hong Kong through July 10 while it reassesses the situation. American Airlines pushed back resumption of flights, originally scheduled for July 9, until August 5, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Last week United began operating five weekly flights between San Francisco and Hong Kong. On Monday said it would begin weekly flights from Chicago to the semi-autonomous city in September.
KLM also canceled an Amsterdam-Hong Kong flight on Wednesday to ensure it’s crew didn’t have to stay overnight and get tested, the South China Morning Post reported.
The deep-throat saliva tests are intended to help contain a new local outbreak of the disease, but underscore challenges airlines face in trying to restart and sustain flight operations after global lockdowns that slowed air travel to a trickle. Airline industry groups have called on governments to take a consistent approach to travel restrictions and health screening that follows international recommendations.
Airlines are concerned crews could be quarantined for 14 days if one person tests positive, which could affect flight operations. Pilot and flight attendant unions object to the tests and many members refuse to fly under those conditions.
Airline crews were exempted from tests and quarantine requirements in Hong Kong until the case numbers started increasing. In many countries, including the U.S., pilots and crew are exempted from testing, quarantine or self-isolation rules that passengers are required to follow.
European and North American airlines have jointly proposed testing aircrews before they depart for Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported.
Any stoppage in passenger flights is a blow to businesses that rely on the widebody body aircraft used on international routes for fast transport of their products. Hong Kong International Airport is the largest airport in the world in terms of cargo volume.
Aggressive testing and quarantine requirements for crews disembarking in China previously led airlines conducting cargo operations, including Delta Air Lines and UPS, to use Seoul, South Korea, or Tokyo as beachheads for connecting to cities there. In some countries, pilots that have to stay onboard aren’t even allowed on the tarmac to conduct pre-flight safety checks, according to international aviation officials.
The International Civil Aviation Organization and airfreight industry groups have urged governments to relax quarantines and other rules affecting crews so cargo and passenger repatriation flights can operate without disruption.
United is adding more domestic and international flights, but activity in the coming months will still be well short of last year’s schedule. The company said it won’t need 36,000 employees and has begun the process of letting them go.