Cathay hit by infections as virus cripples sales

Carrier sees bookings 'crash' amid pandemic, as passengers, attendants taken ill by virus

by Frank Chen
Cathay hit by infections as virus cripples sales
Cathay Pacific planes sit idle on the tarmac of Hong Kong's airport. Photo: Facebook

(ATF) – The Hong Kong government is trying to contact those who flew from Madrid to the city on Cathay Pacific flight CX320 on March 7 after a flight steward tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.

The Cathay employee, 22, has taken Hong Kong’s tally of infections to more than 130, as one of a dozen imported cases amid a “back flow” of the Covid-19 virus from Europe to Asia.

The steward started to suffer from a fever a day before the flight from Spain and she had also traveled to Amsterdam at the end of February. She sought medical attention on Monday as she developed chills and was swiftly isolated in a negative pressure unit at the city’s Prince of Wales Hospital once her infection was confirmed. Her condition is stable.

A young student in the same flight’s economy class was served by the attendant and was diagnosed with pneumonia on Monday after he touched down in Hong Kong and crossed the border to his home in the mainland Chinese province of Guangdong.

Spain, one of the worst-hit European countries alongside Italy, has reported 2,277 infections with 55 deaths as of Thursday, while the Netherlands’ count stood at 503 infections and five deaths.

The attendant and student were in close contact as several meals and snacks were served throughout the 14-hour flight. But a preliminary etiological investigation by Hong Kong’s Center for Health Protection ruled out an in-flight cross-infection, as experts believe the two could have already contracted the pathogen while in Europe before they boarded the same flight back to the city.

Crew suspended

The center is contacting all who flew in economy class. Cathay said it had already suspended work for the entire crew – 16 in total – and they have been isolated. The Boeing 777 plane involved had been thoroughly disinfected, including the replacement of air filters, galley equipment, seat cushions and toilet seats, among other things.

Local papers revealed that one crew member had not been aware of the health scare, nor had she been notified by Cathay or the government. She heard the news from TV after the flight. The panicked colleague rushed to contact the government and is now waiting for test results.

In a separate development, a third infection was confirmed among passengers who flew on another Cathay flight from London on February 29. The 31-year-old female passenger on flight CX250 has now been cured at the Princess Margaret Hospital and her husband has also shown symptoms and is counted as a suspicious case.

Also, a fresh confirmed case reported in Shenzhen had also flown on a Cathay flight, CX260, from Paris to Hong Kong on March 9. The person hailed a taxi at the airport and crossed the border and has now been hospitalized in the mainland city since earlier this week.

The global operations of Cathay, Hong Kong’s flag carrier and Asia’s largest international airline, have been thrown into a tailspin by the viral spread that has crept across borders.

The premium carrier has suspended almost all routes serving mainland China since early February and is now cutting its lucrative Asian, European and North America services, most notably flights to and from Seoul, Tokyo, Milan, Rome, Paris and Frankfurt as outbreaks and travel restrictions crimp demand.

Two-thirds of fleet grounded

Its bookings have “crashed” amid the downturn, nosediving from more than 90,000 bookings daily in February 2019 to about 11,000 per day in the first week of last month.

Cathay has grounded almost two-thirds of its 238-strong fleet since last month and may cut as much as 75% of its scheduled flights for March and April, including those operated by its subsidiaries Cathay Dragon and Hong Kong Express, according to the carrier’s chairman Patrick Healy. About 1,120 of the 1,470 flights for March have already been canceled.

Many of its wide-body jets are parked on the tarmac of Hong Kong’s airport, while the two nearby runways of the major aviation hub have also fallen quiet. But there are reports suggesting the company has been deploying passenger planes to haul more goods to make up for the loss, as seats will unlikely be filled, and its cargo business has been providing some crucial lift amid the headwind.

Cathay reported an attributable profit of HK$1.69 billion (US$217 million) for 2019, compared with HK$2.35 billion a year earlier.

The aviation giant has been asking its 25,000-plus employees to take three weeks of unpaid leave in the next four months, with a guarantee of no large lay-offs, in a bid to slash costs, but not those on its payroll.