Cathay Pacific's relationship with its pilots, which relates to issues that have gone unresolved for a decade, surely ranks as one of the most fractious in the industry today.

Over this period, Cathay has been branded as arrogant in its dealings with pilots, and been accused of taking advantage of Hong Kong's weak labour laws to bully its staff into compliance. Its pilots' union, the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers' Association (HKAOA), has at the same time been charged with being unreasonable and of demanding too much. It has won little sympathy from the public in Hong Kong, which considers the mainly expatriate group of more than 1,500 pilots as overpaid.

Whoever is in the right, the long-running quarrels have been a disaster for all. Operations have been disrupted by "sick-outs" and "work-to-rule" campaigns, and more than a few pilots have had their careers cut short by termination notices. In 1999 Cathay was hit by industrial action from pilots for the first time in its more than 50-year history. Cockpit crew, claiming to be too distressed to work over demands for salary cuts, launched a damaging "sick-out" that disrupted operations for several weeks.

An all-out strike was avoided with an 11th-hour agreement on forced wage cuts. The HKAOA grudgingly accepted the offer, which included pay cuts for some in return for stock options. But operational issues, such as roster practices and the crewing of freighter aircraft, remained unresolved.

Cathay's actions at the time were universally condemned by pilots' unions worldwide. After initially failing to win agreement on pay cuts with the union, the airline wrote directly to its cockpit crew and told them they had to accept new contracts, opt for voluntary redundancy or lose their jobs. Pilots had no choice but to give in as they had little protection under Hong Kong's labour code.

As that fight went on, the two sides were separately in discussions with the Hong Kong government on new rules on rest times between flights. Although they came close to agreement, discussions failed, and to this day the HKAOA accuses the airline of having a "discriminatory employment regime" and unreasonable rostering practices that cause fatigue.

In 2001, as the airline's financial position was improving, the dispute flared again. That July a "work-to-rule" campaign was launched that saw pilots abiding strictly by the terms of their flight operations manuals. The action badly disrupted operations for several weeks during the peak summer travel period and cost the airline dearly. But Cathay held its ground and refused to talk to the union, and early on in the campaign it sacked 52 pilots, saying simply that it had lost confidence in them. Many pilots are now pursuing the more simple strategy of contract compliance, in which they refuse to work on their days off, but Cathay says this has had no impact on its operations. Court cases, meanwhile, go on. There have been no talks between the two sides since late in 2001 and the HKAOA promises to continue its fight.


Source: Airline Business