cathay pacific
The fallout has drawn fire from Hong Kong’s leader John Lee, and put Cathay Chief Executive Officer Ronald Lam under scrutiny for staffing decisions made before and during the pandemic. Image Credit: File photo

Cathay Pacific Airways has slashed the number of flying hours needed to become a captain by 25 per cent, people familiar with the matter said, as a pilot shortage contributes to mass flight cancellations and threatens to undermine the airline’s COVID-19 rebound.

Pilots now must have a minimum of 3,000 hours of flying experience and 500 flights to be considered for promotion, according to an operational handbook that was updated on January 10. That’s down from 4,000 hours required previously. Candidates still need 1,500 hours on commercial jets, as well as training, and must meet other requirements as well.

The move is intended to make the carrier more desirable to pilots and bolster its captains ranks, both gutted by Covid-related job losses. Subsequent pay cuts for the remaining pilots accelerated an exodus of cockpit crews. As a result, the airline has 48 per cent fewer captains and first officers than before the pandemic, according to data from Cathay’s pilots union “- a shortage that has triggered the current crisis over flight cancellations.

Cathay said the changes were approved by regulators and came into effect in November. Experience is only one factor, with performance determining who is selected for captain training. “It’s good for our rebuild journey, as more pilots get promoted and that helps address our operational need,” the airline said in a emailed statement.

Experience levels have dropped across the airline, Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association Chair Paul Weatherilt said in an interview, adding that he hopes the latest changes won’t compromise the quality of Cathay’s cockpit crew. “They are lowering the requirement and the benchmark,” he said. “The only reason that this has to happen is because so many captains have left and so many experienced first officers have also left.”

In comparison, Virgin Atlantic requires pilots to have 4,000 flying hours, a spokeswoman said. Flying hours aren’t relevant at Deutsche Lufthansa AG, as first officers have to wait 10 years or more for a captain role to open up, a company spokesperson said. The seniority system at Qantas Airways Ltd. means it can take two decades to reach captain, with everyone well exceeding established minimums, a Qantas union official said.

Cancellation Surge

Cathay is on the back foot after canceling hundreds of flights since December 24. On Wednesday, it said it didn’t roster enough pilots to operate its planned schedule. The problem stems from both not having enough pilots and existing aircrew hitting the flying time limit of 900 hours across a rolling 12-month period. Once they exceed the limit, they are benched for the following month.

The airline said this week that Chief Operations and Service Delivery Officer Alex McGowan would lead a task force to identify and resolve “underlying issues.”