APAC carriers feeling the Omicron strain

Virgin Australia and Qantas cutting flights; Cathay under fire for alleged quarantine breaches; US carriers feel the pain too as China cuts access

(PHOTO: Shutterstock)

Airlines from China to Australia to the United States are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and have announced a range of cuts to capacity in recent days to deal with another near shutdown in international aviation.

Virgin Australia and flag carrier Qantas have announced deep cuts as the Omicron variant spreads around the world, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific is under fire for alleged breaches of quarantines by crew members and US airlines are lashing out at China as the mainland remains nearly shut off from the world in order to maintain its “COVID-zero” policy.

Jayne Hrdlicka, CEO of Virgin Australia.

Virgin Australia announced this week it will reduce its flight capacity by 25 percent in January and February and suspend its only international service to Fiji. Since the airline entered administration in 2020, Virgin has slashed capacity across its network and stopped flights on 10 of its routes, including its only international service to Fiji, which was reintroduced less than a month ago. CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said the cuts in capacity would have no long-term effect on the company or its customers. “One thing we have learned from the last two years is that we need to keep adapting as circumstances change. So, we will continue to do that and have made some temporary changes to our network to manage the current environment,” Hrdlicka said. “We do know that as we make the shift to living with COVID-19, there will continue to be changes in all our lives, and we look forward to continuing to connect our guests with their families, friends, colleagues. We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused to any guest impacted by the changes to our flight schedule during this time.”

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

Qantas meanwhile, announced today (13 January), that it and its Jetstar unit were cutting domestic capacity for the third quarter of FY2022 to 70 percent of pre-COVID levels and said it would cut international capacity to 20 percent of pre-COVID levels. The international cuts were driven by increased travel restrictions in countries like Japan, Thailand and Indonesia and is mostly impacting Jetstar’s leisure routes, Qantas said.

Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said: “The sudden uptick in COVID cases is having an obvious impact on consumer behaviour across various sectors, including travel, but we know it’s temporary. Thankfully, Australia has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates and the Omicron variant is milder than its predecessors. So, as challenging as this current phase is, we’re optimistic that it is likely to fast track a return to normal. People are already looking beyond what’s happening now with early bookings for the Easter holidays in April looking promising for both domestic and international. We have the flexibility to add capacity back if demand improves earlier than expected, but 70 per cent still represents a lot of domestic flying and it’s a quantum improvement on the levels we faced only a few months ago. Our focus on cash positive flying remains, notwithstanding some of the costs that we’ll have to absorb from this sudden drop in demand.”

Cathay Pacific faces action

(PHOTO: Matt Driskill)

Cathay Pacific officials said this week they would cooperate with a government investigation following an outbreak of Omicron coronavirus variant in Hong Kong that began with two of the airline’s employees. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said authorities were investigating “whether this airline has complied with the regulations,” and warned it could result in possible legal action. “We will take the legal action once we have the full evidence of what wrong it has gone into,” Lam said.

A recent outbreak traced to a Cathay Pacific air crew who breached home quarantine restrictions has triggered further tightening of already strict social distancing controls and travel restrictions in Hong Kong, which like mainland China, maintains a COVID-zero approach to the pandemic. The recent events pile new pressure onto the airline, which has been heavily impacted by the pandemic and has no domestic market to fall back on. Cargo flights have also been slashed recently, as new quarantine rules imposed on crew has left managers struggling to find enough pilots. Cathay Pacific has said its crews spent a combined total of 73,000 nights in quarantine last year as the Hong Kong-based airline keeps flying amid the strict zero-COVID-19 controls.

US criticises China over cancelled flights

Beijing Daxing International Airport. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

The US government on 12 January levelled complaints at China for cancelling a number of flights from the United States to China because of passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19. “China’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations under the US-China Air Transport Agreement. We are engaging with the (Chinese government) on this and we retain the right to take regulatory measures as appropriate,” a US Transportation Department (USDOT) spokesperson said. China on Wednesday ordered the suspension of six more US-to-China flights in coming weeks after a surge in passengers testing positive for COVID-19, rising to 70 cancellations mandated this year in a schedule that had already been drastically cut back. The latest suspension affected two United Airlines flights from San Francisco to Shanghai and four China Southern Airlines flights from Los Angeles to Guangzhou.

Before the latest cancellations, three US airlines and four Chinese carriers were operating about 20 flights a week between the countries, well below the figure of more than 100 per week before the pandemic. China has been suspending flights with other countries, including on Wednesday six total flights from France and Canada. The number of US flights scrapped has surged since December, as infections caused by the Omicron variant soar to record highs in the United States. China has all but shut its borders to travellers, cutting total international flights to just 200 a week, or 2 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

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Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.


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