As Hong Kong braces for its 15th weekend of mass protests and chaos since June, tourists and business travelers are understandably spooked. The crisis has landed the city’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific in fresh woes not too long after the airline – Asia’s largest by international passenger flow – lifted itself out of the red.

The jump in empty seats on the Hong Kong carrier’s 130-plus wide-body passenger jets forced the firm to reduce or suspend long-haul flights to and from North America and Europe, some of which were trunk routes that supported its business.

This week it was reported that Cathay will terminate its 13-hour, four-flights-a-week service to the Irish capital Dublin, which was launched last year, and cut daytime departures from Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, Vancouver, Washington DC and New York (from both JFK and Newark airports), among other overseas destinations.

The decision not to fly some half-empty planes from these cities came after a summer of discontent and unrest in Cathay’s home city. This is a testing time for the carrier facing tepid demand in a traditional peak season for travel, and ahead of a winter slowdown with no uptick on the horizon.

Cathay has been struggling to fill its seats since June, especially on flights to Hong Kong, as the city’s protests drag on. Photo: Asia Times

Cathay’s flights to Vancouver will be reduced from 17 to 14 a week from October 29, while Washington will lose one of its five weekly flights, and two-way services to JFK in New York are expected to fall from 21 to 18 a week, according to the South China Morning Post, which reviewed its advance bookings.

The airline also expects short-haul flights to destinations throughout mainland China including some to Beijing and lower-tier cities will be cut next.

The number of passengers flying into Hong Kong on Cathay flights nosedived by as much as 38% year-on-year in August, usually the busiest month in summer, when the city’s street rallies showed no sign of improving, the airline revealed earlier this week. Overall passenger flow dropped by 11%, but this was partly cushioned by many Hongkongers seeking some calm overseas or simply emigrating.

The premium carrier also upset Beijing after pilots and attendants took part in and even led some protests in Hong Kong against the now-retracted China extradition bill, with sit-ins staged at the city’s airport.

Rocked by threats, resignations

That led to threats to deny Cathay entry into Chinese airspace and snarl its operations unless it purged staff who participated or openly supported the protests.

The Hong Kong carrier, owned by the British conglomerate Swire with Air China as its second-largest shareholder, buckled under the pressure, which led to the departure of its CEO Rupert Hugg and chairman John Slosar, along with several pilots and other employees.

Now the neighboring mainland cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen are seeing Cathay’s misfortune as a chance to poach business to their respective hubs and airlines.

The Guangzhou-based China Southern, a state-owned conglomerate and Asia’s biggest airline by fleet size, has added more flights to 25 intercontinental services from the city to North America, Europe, Russia, Middle East and Africa, with tickets offered at a fraction of Cathay’s fares on similar routes, even during the year-end festive season and Christmas break.

Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou has a massive new terminal. Photo: Asia Times
A China Southern Airlines A380 passenger jet roars into the sky from Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, the carrier’s home base. Photo: Ban Ma Li/ planespotters.net

Cheaper prices and more destinations can be big incentives to retain fliers and attract new passengers from other parts of the Pearl River Delta and Guangdong province who may have initially flown on Cathay via Hong Kong.

On top of the three runways, Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport has just inaugurated a new terminal with 658,700 square meters of floor space to add further capacity for China Southern and other carriers.

With the high-flying carrier, Guangzhou’s airport is set to overtake Hong Kong in passenger numbers in coming years. Baiyun handled 35.6 million fliers, up 4.1%, in the first half of 2019, compared with Hong Kong’s 37.8 million, up 2%, according to data crunched by the IATA.

Hong Kong may even see a drop in passenger numbers for the rest of this year as the impact on travel from the city’s ongoing protests, now in their fourth month, continues to bite.

In Shenzhen, the city’s government has budgeted an additional one billion yuan (US$141 million) to subsidize Shenzhen Airlines, Hainan Airlines and other carriers to open more international routes. The city already operates 30 such routes to Brisbane, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Zurich, Vienna, Vancouver, etc, according to Shenzhen Daily.

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