Hong Kong health officials and experts have dismissed fears over a further Covid-19 outbreak as the city’s airport prepares to allow transiting passengers from mainland China starting Saturday, noting the pandemic situation there has been under control.
Meanwhile, the city’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific Airways, said the development would be of more limited benefit to its business than previously expected.
The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) confirmed on Thursday a temporary plan to resume transfer services from, but not to, the mainland, as Chinese aviation authorities continued to severely limit international travel to restrict imported cases of Covid-19.
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The move confirms an earlier Post report about planned short-term transit arrangements designed to help mainland students seeking to resume studies overseas.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Centre for Health Protection’s communicable disease branch, told a press conference on Thursday that the return of flights transiting from mainland China through the city would not pose a serious risk to public health.
“There aren’t that many cases in the epidemic in mainland China right now, so I think the impact to Hong Kong would not be that big,” she said.
“Transit passengers would be leaving [the city] directly, and would not stay here beyond 24 hours.”
Both Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a government public health adviser, and Dr Leung Chi-chiu, a respiratory medicine specialist, agreed the new arrangement is unlikely to pose a risk.
“And as China has been practising the health code system, any positive cases will be screened before boarding,” Hui said, adding that these mainlanders, who will only be in restricted areas, would be unlikely to have any contact with the Hong Kong public.
But Dr Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), expressed concerns on Thursday that authorities had not explained how they would screen passengers who might have, in the 14 days before their flights, been to parts of the mainland such as Xinjiang or Liaoning province, where small-scale outbreaks of Covid-19 had again been reported. There are no flights from those regions to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong airport has allowed flight transfers since June 1, but not to the mainland. Previously, all transit services were suspended from March 25.
The AAHK reiterated its transit rule arrangements that passengers needed to have flights booked on one ticket, receive boarding passes for all trips at check-in and have bags checked through to their final destination.
Transit passengers can only layover in HKIA for 24 hours or less, and they will be required to go directly to their next flight’s boarding gate, as per current Covid measures, to limit contact with travellers originating from Hong Kong.
Zuki Wong, chairwoman of the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants’ Union, cited unnamed experts in asserting China’s Covid-19 testing was unreliable, and thus opening transits from the mainland risked “mass infection” of aircrew.
“The third wave came from overseas so we are concerned about imported infections. The figure [from China] is less than other countries but the testing and the methods are unreliable, we don’t really rely on [the statistics],” Wong said.
Ronald Lam Siu-por, Cathay Pacific’s chief customer and commercial officer, said on Wednesday that the airline was prepared to add flights at short notice if needed, but at that time the airline had not received official news of the plan.
However, the airline on Thursday said the one-way transit arrangement from mainland “is likely to have [a] limited impact” rather than the more positive view taken the day before, prior to the full details emerging, according to investment bank Jefferies, which held a closed-door briefing with company executives.
Opening up only one-way mainland transits means Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s largest airline, is not in a prime position to benefit, and will not be able to capture a surge in inbound demand, which has prompted airfares to skyrocket.
The airline would welcome any respite from the travel slump after notching up a record HK$9.86 billion half-year net loss for the first six months of 2020.
The company's planes have been less than 30 per cent full since the airline started offering a skeleton flight schedule in April, with mainland flights at about 15 per cent capacity, according to company data.
In normal times, Cathay Pacific is one of the largest non-mainland airlines operating in China, serving 23 airports. But since August it is only flying to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Xiamen a maximum of 11 times a week, a far cry from the 360 flights it was operating weekly before the pandemic.
Still, due to current requirements and the limited number of flights from mainland China to Hong Kong on other airlines, few other operators were in a position to benefit as much as Cathay from the new transit rules.
However, Brendan Sobie, from Sobie Aviation, said the benefits for Cathay would be limited. “Any opportunity to gain back some traffic in this environment is positive but the impact may not be significant. For any recovery phase to really start, borders need to be reopened and two-way international traffic needs to resume,” he said.
“Over time, the CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) will allow more foreign airlines to operate flights to and from China which will change the current demand-and-supply situation,” he added. “Cathay will theoretically have an edge as it’s not restricted in terms of the number of flights it can operate to and from China. But what limits this advantage is the fact that it can’t carry transit into China.”
Since the health crisis, scores of passengers have been stuck in airport transit for up to three months, prompting a tightening of rules and threats of heftier punishments for airlines.
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