The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has criticised the Hong Kong government’s quarantine requirements for air crew as “disproportionally” impacting US carriers “to the benefit of Hong Kong carriers”.

The DOT also warned that it could limit the number of flights Hong Kong-based carriers, such as Cathay Pacific, can operate to the US, as part of an order it issued on 16 March.

Cathay Pacific Cargo at Hong Kong 2020

Source: Shutterstock

A Cathay Pacific Cargo Boeing 747 at Hong Kong.

It has ordered all Hong Kong-based carriers to file their flight schedules for all US flights within seven days, for the department to consider “the operation of the services contained in those schedules, or any part thereof, may be contrary to applicable law or adversely affect the public interest”.

At the heart of the DOT order is the Hong Kong government’s move earlier in the year to impose mandatory quarantine measures for all Hong Kong-based crew members returning to the territory, as part of wide-ranging measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The DOT notes that these measures, which came into force in February, have made it “impossible” for US all-cargo carrier FedEx to maintain its 180 crew members based in Hong Kong, which the airline has said is a “critical hub in its intra-Asia network”.

In rolling out the quarantine restrictions, Hong Kong also exempted crew operating flights from Anchorage, which the DOT says sees a “large transhipment operation” by Cathay.

“This carve out effectively provides Cathay Pacific with the ability to continue those operations without impact from the new crew quarantine requirements,” says the DOT.

However, FedEx crew based in Hong Kong only operate intra-Asian flights, and would thus be subject to the new restrictions.

The DOT discloses that as soon as the crew quarantine measures kicked in, FedEx began temporarily relocating its crew to San Francisco, to “maintain the viability of critical operations in its intra-Asian network”, a move the carrier has said would “incur significant operational costs and personal burden on its Hong Kong crewmembers”.

The department has reached out to Hong Kong’s Transport and Housing Bureau to establish an exception for FedEx’s intra-Asia service, but did not receive a response.

On 1 March, and in response to a subsequent letter sent by the DOT, Hong Kong authorities said they were willing to consider justifications for similar exceptions, but “did not explain its rationale for incorporating an exception for Anchorage”.

The DOT further charged that Hong Kong “already has significantly harmed the US carrier’s operations and drastically upended the competitive dynamics of the market by implementing an exception for Anchorage at the outset of its new policy”.

“The manner in which Hong Kong has imposed its restrictions disproportionally impacts US carriers to the exclusive benefit of Hong Kong carriers, and this imbalance denies US carriers their bilateral right to a fair and equal opportunity to compete in the US-Hong Kong market,” the department adds.

To this end, the DOT says it is imposing its order in the name of “public interest”. While only Cathay has flights to and from the US, the DOT says the order also applies to compatriots Hong Kong Airlines and HK Express.

Responding to FlightGlobal’s request for comment, Cathay says it will “continue to comply with all the applicable aviation regulations in both Hong Kong and the territories to which we fly”. 

The carrier adds that it has also been affected by the new air crew quarantine measures, which have led to a reduction in cargo flights to the US from the usual 35-39 flights a week, to 21-28 flights. 

Cathay previously disclosed that the new measures will lead to a slashing of capacity, in addition to an increase in monthly cash burn. 

The carrier adds: “Cathay Pacific believes that it is in the interest of the general and travelling public for this matter to be resolved among all relevant parties as soon as possible.”

Story updated with Cathay Pacific’s response.