Cathay Pacific has conceded it “underestimated” the number of reserve pilots needed over the year-end period, which in turn led to a spate of flight cancellations.

In a statement issued 10 January, the airline’s chief operations and service delivery officer Alex McGowan says he is leading a task-force to “identify and resolve the underlying issues” that led to the operational snags.

Cathay Pacific (B-LXM) A350-1000

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Cathay Pacific Airbus A350-1000 at Sydney Airport.

Cathay abruptly cancelled several flights over Christmas and New Year, laying the blame on on pilot shortages amid a spike in “seasonal illnesses”.

On 7 January, the carrier said it would be slashing 12 flights a day through February – its first significant schedule cuts since Hong Kong borders reopened in 2023 – to avoid cancellations during the upcoming Lunar New Year period.

McGowan says the cancellations in January were necessary given that pilot rosters for the month were set in December and that “the lack of adequate reserve levels persisted into January”.

“In order to stabilise the current operation, we needed to cancel further flights across the first two weeks of January. Cancellations peaked at 27 flights on 7 January and will be fewer over subsequent weeks,” he adds.

The Oneworld carrier has also come under scrutiny from the city’s government, which called the airline out for its operational issues.

On 9 January, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee says his government was “very concerned” about the cancellations, and said the transport ministry will get in touch with Cathay’s management “to ensure that the capacity is rebuilt as quickly as possible”.

Cathay’s pilot union, the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association blamed the airline’s steep job cuts in 2020 - as part of restructuring efforts amid the pandemic - for its current woes.

The union, which estimates the airline to only have half the captains and first officers it had before the pandemic, said Cathay made “deep and permanent” pay cuts, and fired thousands of its pilots and flight attendants. This, in turn, became “disastrous for Hong Kong’s aviation skills base”.

Cathay’s latest statement did not address the union’s comments, though McGowan has vowed to “ensure we improve” following the probe.

He says: “The disruption of this scale is far below the standard our customers have a right to expect, and far below the standard to which we hold ourselves. I am leading a task force to ensure we identify and resolve the underlying issues. We will ensure that we improve as a result and can deliver the high-quality services and reliability Hong Kong deserves.”