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It certainly is not a good time for Cathay Pacific. After struggling through Hong Kong’s ongoing protests, it’s now amidst an unprecedented slowdown in demand for travel. Cathay’s management has certainly been busy this past week, and most recently announced that they would be laying off all US-based flight attendants from June.
Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER
Cathay’s US-Based Crews
Cathay Pacific was unique amongst Asian carriers in that it has cabin crew based in major gateways in the United States, namely, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. These bases have all been established relatively recently. The San Francisco base was established first in 2006, while the New York base was the latest base to be established, in 2013.
While this is unconventional, the intention of the US crew bases was done to keep a lid on costs by saving on expensive outport hotels for Hong Kong-based crews and to provide the airline with flexibility in the event that crew members end up sick during layovers. Furthermore, management could save on not having to pay Cathay’s well-compensated senior Hong Kong-based crews on certain North American flight sectors.
Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER First Class
All US-based crews typically operated specific frequencies of flights to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. For example, New York-based crews would only operate CX841 from New York to Hong Kong and CX830 on the return. US-based crews typically don’t fly with Hong Kong-based crews, but occasionally the bases do mix, but only really ever in Economy.
Unfortunately, it appears that the costs of having overseas crew bases outweighed the benefits, and the airline has sent a memo announcing the closure of these bases effective June of this year. Following significant losses in 2017, Cathay has been attempting to cut personnel costs under its “Time to Win” strategy and prior to this had shuttered crew bases in Toronto and Vancouver.
So, it comes as no surprise, especially during the current COVID-19 outbreak, that management decided to pull the trigger.
Obviously, this is horrible news for the crew, and I feel terribly for all those affected in such a terrible time. While I’ve heard of some former Toronto and Vancouver-based Cathay crews being able to transfer over to Air Canada, the downturn in the aviation industry means that most major US airlines will likely start putting a hiring freeze on new cabin crew.
How Will This Affect Cathay’s Service Standards?
While I’m sad to see the livelihoods of these crew being affected, it’s worth noting that there had previously been complaints of the performance of US-based crews. Given how some of these bases, most notably the New York base, had only been established for a short period of time, many crew working as Flight Pursers and Senior Pursers were just not as experienced as their Hong Kong counterparts, resulting in alleged service shortfalls, especially in premium cabins.
I’ve had great experiences with New York-based crews in Premium Economy and Economy
Personally, I’ve had a few flights with New York-based crews and found them overall to be a mixed bag. New York-based crews are typically viewed quite negatively in comparison to their other US-based counterparts, and I’ve been disappointed by service in the premium cabins. However, I’ve also had fantastic experiences with New York-based crews when flying in Economy, so, I guess your mileage may vary. So, I wouldn’t necessarily view the firing of US-based crews as an attempt to remove some underperforming crews from the system.
What About Cathay’s Other Crew Bases?
Cathay Pacific also operates crew bases in Bangkok, Singapore and London, and the news of base closures in the US put the viability of Cathay’s other crew bases into question.
While Cathay used to operate mini-hub in Bangkok and Singapore for fifth-freedom flights to certain South Asian destinations, these have since been abandoned, with the only remaining flight being a hop between Bangkok and Singapore.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A330
There was once an experiment to roster these crews on certain long-haul routes, but this was heavily opposed by Cathay’s Hong Kong Flight Attendants Union. With no real purpose for these crew bases, I can’t imagine that Cathay will keep them around for longer. This is such a shame, as crews from these two bases, especially the Singapore base, are known for being some of the best in the entire Cathay system.
Cathay’s London crew base is also known for generally being a cut above their Hong Kong-based counterparts, and it will be interesting to see what Cathay does with them. On one hand, I can’t imagine the base is cheap to run. However, London is one of Cathay’s most important destinations, with more frequencies than all other long-haul destinations. Most importantly, hotels in London are often outrageously expensive, so Cathay could still plausibly justify the existence of the base.
Once again, I feel incredibly sorry for the US-based crew. This is a difficult time for everybody, and I can’t imagine how tough this must be on the crews. While it was seemingly only a matter of time until this happened, the timing of this is just absolutely awful. I’m sad to see some of the great crew members I’ve flown with go and hope they’ll be able to find new jobs soon. This just seems to be the beginning of Cathay’s attempts to keep costs down and preserve cash flow throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and we’ll start to see more drastic action in the next few months.