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US airlines cancel Hong Kong flights over crew testing

Cargo pilots test positive for COVID as city responds to outbreak

United Airlines has hit the pause button on flights to Hong Kong because of crew concerns over COVID testing. (Photo: Flickr/Christian Junker Photography)

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) and American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) have temporarily suspended flights to Hong Kong after the city imposed invasive COVID-19 testing on all arriving crew members.

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.

Quarantine quandry

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.

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


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  1. Stephen Webster

    You are most welcome I have my brother family still in Hong Kong. With what is going on with China Hong Kong is very high risk. We should be very careful on all flights in and out of Hong Kong or China.

  2. Eric Kulisch

    Mr. Webster, thank you for being a reader and commenting on my story. You make a very good connection between the similarities around land border and aviation restrictions affecting transportation workers.

  3. Stephen Webster

    Same problem with some pilots and truck drivers between Canada and the U S
    . Some truck drivers who did not have a home to go to believed to be part of the reason for the Outbreak among farm workers in Ontario Canada. We need to do a better job of keeping truck drivers isolated and provide hotel rooms between trips and while waiting for reloads in the U S. This should be a much higher priority than wage subsidy for truck drivers by the Federal government in both Canada and the U S for pilots, truck drivers and people involved with the boats. Windsor did nothing to prevent coronavoius or the Ontario government or the trucking ass among farm workers, truck drivers and the homeless disabled.

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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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. 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]