Hong Kong rule changes offer only limited relief for Cathay Pacific


The partial easing of Hong Kong's entry restrictions will help Cathay Pacific restore at least some traffic from key markets, although the growth rate will remain glacial as long as other constraints stay in place.

The Hong Kong government plans to lift a suspension on flights from nine countries from 1-Apr-2022, and it will also shorten the quarantine measures for all vaccinated Hong Kong residents entering the Special Administrative Region (SAR). But Cathay Pacific is still keeping most of its international frequencies at very low levels due to the risk of triggering flight-specific suspensions.

While Hong Kong's latest moves still fall far short of the broader reopenings announced by other Asia-Pacific countries, the easing is significant in that it marks a change in direction from the SAR's recent trend of tightening. Although the pandemic has often proved such predictions premature, this could mark an inflexion point for Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific.

However, the rate of improvement needs to increase dramatically before any meaningful recovery is within sight.

  • Hong Kong plans to lift flight suspensions on nine countries from 1-Apr-2022 and reduce quarantine measures for vaccinated residents.
  • Cathay Pacific will cautiously restore some flight schedules but will operate them at very low frequencies to avoid flight-specific suspensions.
  • The easing of restrictions marks a change in direction for Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific, but a significant recovery is still far off.
  • Cathay Pacific's capacity is dominated by flights to Mainland China and Taiwan.
  • The addition of more routes will only provide a marginal capacity boost for Cathay Pacific.
  • While progress is being made, the rate of change in Hong Kong is slower compared to other countries in the region.


  • Hong Kong will remove flight suspension on nine countries from 1-Apr-2022.
  • Arrival quarantine period will be halved for Hong Kong residents.
  • Cathay is adding routes, but will only operate them once per 14 days.
  • Mainland China and Taiwan dominate Cathay's capacity and flight schedule.

Some major visitor markets were on Hong Kong's flight suspension list

The SAR government announced the changes to its restrictions on 21-Mar-2022, after previously signalling that some degree of relaxation was coming.

Flight suspensions will be lifted for nine countries: Australia, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, the UK and the US. The Hong Kong government placed these markets into a special category in Jan-2022 due to concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Many of these were important markets for Hong Kong visitors before the pandemic.

The chart below shows the leading markets for inbound visitors to Hong Kong in 2019, excluding mainland China. Four of the top seven markets on this chart were also among the nine that will have suspensions lifted in Apr-2022.

Hong Kong: visitor arrivals by source market for 2019, excluding mainland China

The Hong Kong government will also be reducing its hotel quarantine on arrival requirement for SAR residents to seven days, compared to the current rule of 14 days. A PCR test will be required on the fifth day of quarantine and rapid antigen tests on the sixth and seventh days.

Most non-residents are still not able to enter Hong Kong, except for travellers arriving from Mainland China, Macau or Taiwan.

This means that Hong Kong residents will be the main beneficiaries of the latest quarantine changes.

Flight-specific suspension rule remains a disincentive to raising frequencies - "we are only able to schedule one flight per route every 14 days."

The good news is that Cathay Pacific is able to restore more of its flight schedule following the government moves.

On the day the removal of the flight suspensions was announced the airline said that it was "actively working on resuming more flights for our customers from April 1." [2022]

However, soon afterwards the airline tempered expectations by stressing that it will only be offering a handful of frequencies per month on any routes it adds, as it does not want to run afoul of another pandemic-related rule.

Even though the location-based suspensions were removed, there is still the possibility of triggering flight-specific suspensions through a different government mechanism. Under this rule, specific flights are suspended for 14 days if a certain number of COVID-19 cases arrive on that route in a seven-day period.

This rule has already been enforced multiple times, involving routes operated by different airlines.

Cathay is still "working hard to resume more flights" after 1-Apr-2022, the airline said. "However, due to the possibility of the [government's] 14-day flight-specific suspension mechanism being enacted, and in order to avoid any unplanned disruptions to our customers that would affect their quarantine hotel and other travel arrangements, we are only able to schedule one flight per route every 14 days."

Many of Cathay's existing inbound flights are already operating on average once every 14 days. However some - particularly from Mainland China - are operating multiple times per week.

Revised Apr-2022 schedule includes more destinations, but with low frequencies

Cathay Pacific has published a flight schedule for Apr-2022 that now includes some of the nine countries.

Of these, it will resume flights to Australia, Canada, the Philippines, the UK and the US in Apr-2022.

For the month of Apr-2022 in total, Cathay intends to operate flights to Hong Kong from 10 points on the mainland, 14 points elsewhere in Asia, two in Australia, five in North America, and two in the UK. It will operate a total of approximately 40 inbound frequencies for the month from destinations excluding Mainland China and Taiwan.

Since the flight-specific rules only apply to inbound flights, Cathay is offering a larger number of outbound services on its schedule. Excluding Mainland China and Taiwan, Cathay has scheduled 62 outbound flights during Apr-2022.

The situation is reversed for Mainland China and Taiwan flights, with more flights to Hong Kong than in the other direction. Cathay plans to operate 37 flights per week from Mainland China and Taiwan to Hong Kong during Apr-2022, and 13 per week outbound to these markets.

Mainland China dominates Cathay Pacific's operations at the moment, and Taiwan is its second largest market.

Cathay Pacific: capacity, as measured in weekly seats for the week of 21-Mar-2022

Adding more routes will likely only provide a marginal capacity boost

Cathay Pacific has had to curtail its capacity in recent months due to tightened travel restrictions and crew quarantine requirements. These new measures resulted from a spike in cases in Hong Kong linked to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Before the latest government announcements the airline had said that it would only be able to operate about 2% of its pre-pandemic passenger capacity and 30-35% of its cargo capacity while the stricter operational constraints remained in place.

Presumably it will be able to raise capacity beyond that level in Apr-2022, but the increase is unlikely to be significant.

Progress is being made, but the rate of change is much faster in other countries

Despite the Hong Kong government's latest moves to ease some border restrictions, there are still enough in place to dampen Cathay's recovery hopes. But considering that Hong Kong had some of the toughest COVID-related entry restrictions in the world, any efforts to chip away at those restrictions are welcome.

However, with more Asia-Pacific countries opening up to overseas travellers, the contrast with Hong Kong's stance still looks increasingly stark. While the government's recent steps may well signal a change in direction, the pace of change is being outstripped by other Southeast Asian countries and travel hubs.

Mainland China is undoubtedly Hong Kong's and Cathay Pacific's most important market.

The Hong Kong government must do what it can to protect and further reopen travel with the mainland, while also aiming to restore Hong Kong's position as a global hub.

Achieving both appears to be increasingly difficult.

Where gaps in global service remain for a long period, the market tends to find alternative workarounds, which can become permanent.

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