Eleven major airlines have joined forces to demand the Hong Kong government drop mandatory COVID-19 testing for pilots and cabin crew when the Chinese territory starts to loosen travel restrictions next month.
The airlines, which include British Airways and United, say the existing testing rules are out of step with the rest of the world and make operating flights to Hong Kong almost impossible.
As well as pre-departure tests, flight crew are also subjected to further COVID-19 swabs on arrival. If a crew member tests positive they can be sent to a quarantine camp and their colleagues classed as ‘close contacts’.
British Airways eventually suspended flights to Hong Kong after several groups of flight crew were sent to a now-notorious quarantine camp in Penny’s Bay. At the time, the quarantine period was three weeks, although the Hong Kong administration has now reduced the amount of time that positive cases must isolate.
In each case, British Airways was able to extract its crew before the three week quarantine period was complete but it required intervention at the highest diplomatic levels.
British Airways complained to its regulator that enforced quarantine was causing “mental health” concerns.
Flight crew at Virgin Atlantic, Finnair and FedEx Express had all experienced a similar fate.
“Hong Kong’s restrictions are now an outlier globally and, importantly, at odds with best practices,” the letter to Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam reads. Other signatories of the letter seen by Bloomberg include FedEx Express, Air Canada, Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand.
Lam is easing some travel rules in April, with a total travel ban on nine countries including the UK and the US due to be lifted. Airlines, however, are unlikely to restart operations immediately because post-arrival COVID-19 testing is still in force for flight crew.
Some carriers may fly to a third country and operate a ‘shuttle’ service to Hong Kong but this adds additional cost and complexity.
While the airlines say in the letter that they “seek a return to normal flight operations in Hong Kong” they are also willing to consider a so-called “closed loop” system that would effectively segregate flight crew from the population so as to negate the need for testing.
Although flight crew must test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights, it’s believed Hong Kong was testing for much lower counts of virus. As a result, flight crew who had recovered from Coronavirus weeks or months before operating to Hong Kong were still testing positive with Hong Kong’s tests.
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