Aviation corner

It’s not often someone flips out around here, so it was refreshing to see some comments ‘straight from the heart’ here and then here. No mention, though, of my original point, that Cathay Pacific union activists who claim or hint that flight safety is at risk because of mundane – if unpopular – changes in working practices or conditions of service are scoundrels. Most people know that regulatory authorities around the world would ground the airline if this were true. Spokesmen claiming, in effect, that management decisions might lead passengers to die sound desperate and weaken their argument.

Airlines are prone to labour relations troubles. Part of the problem is that it is a perennially loss-making industry, though CX is unusual in that it makes decent profits most of the time, thanks to Hong Kong government policies that limit competition. Even so, global recession, oil prices and Hong Kong’s high cost base mean that CX management struggle to deliver the returns the owners expect.

It is a highly cyclical industry. On several occasions over the decades, demand has exceeded supply and CX has splashed out on new aircraft and staff in order to grab its share of Asia’s fast-growing market. But when the downturn comes, the company is stuck with excess capacity, high-paid manpower and a major price-competitiveness problem alongside most other Asian airlines. The upshot is that successive generations of staff have been hired on decreasingly generous conditions. Longer-serving crew, hired on relatively fat packages over 20 years ago, have been pressured into helping the company economize in other ways, such as measures to reduce expatriate housing costs.

In theory, everyone at CX should be reasonably happy; how many airlines in the world have a profit-sharing system? But a number of pilots, mostly of fairly long service, are virtually consumed with hatred for their employer. They tend to be clannish, geographically – and some would say culturally – isolated, not too hot on business and financial affairs, and have rest days to fill. After flying aircraft, fighting the company seems to be the centre of their lives. (Moving to another carrier isn’t an option, as they would lose seniority.) Indeed, management suspected around 10 years ago that some of these ultra-disgruntled crew were battling the company from the cockpit, deliberately causing commercial losses by, for example, delaying flights. They were fired, leading to a messy court case and an even more entrenched warfare mentality on both sides. And that hyper-sensitivity.

A rule of thumb in all companies is that industrial relations problems are by definition the fault of management, whose job is to make sure the problems don’t arise in the first case. Cathay Pacific is run by a cadre of managers technically seconded from Swire, who thus should bear ultimate responsibility. Traditionally these guys have often had curiously similar backgrounds: obscure British boarding schools, often with a spell in the Army. The Swires’ policy has been to recruit more than is needed and then let them fight or grovel their way up the management ladder. One, I was once seriously told, had the psychological profile of a wife-beater. It was he who was the big softy who urged that the 100 or so pilots originally due to be fired 10 years back be halved in number. Which makes you wonder what the rest are like.


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20 Responses to Aviation corner

  1. Group Captain Bela Lugosi, DFC says:

    Anyone else call pilots ‘drivers’?

    I really got into trouble once by doing that.

    I once had dinner with the head of Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong at his home on the Peak. He made us all remove our shoes at the door. I asked his wife, an-ex-trolley dolly, if she had a moist towelette in her bag but she didn’t get the joke.

  2. maugrim says:

    Anyone who doubts Hemlock’s analysis need only examine the content at PPRuNe Forums, the Professional Pilots Rumour Network. QED in action.

  3. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    If only they extended their Disco Bay wife swapping arrangements to cover non-pilots, they may get a broader sense of the world.


    Date: 2012-05-21 HKT 12:13

    “A survey by the University of Hong Kong has shown people locally have better mental health than those in neighbouring countries and cities.”

    That’s all right then!

  5. Real Tax Payer says:

    While admitting that I feel both very safe and “at home” whenever I board a CX flight, and thus I opt to fly CX whenever possible, I mention two points:

    1. When flying to Europe last week, the French guy sitting next to me, while commending the good service, commented that the aircraft itself was very old, and then proceeded to explain why in some ( correct) detail. Seems like I have been flying exclusively CX too long to notice the gradual deterioration of their fleet.

    1. Whereas KA seems to have a lot of local stewardesses (both from HK and mainland-born) , most of the CX stewardesses seem to come from other S.E. Asian countries , so I wonder what sort of contracts they have and how much salary tax they pay in HK ( if any)

    Talking of tax: I once read somewhere that Swire has structured CX tax-wise / off-shore so that CX as pays almost no profit tax in HK ( or at least a tiny proportion of the profit tax it would pay if fully incorporated in HK ) . I can’t vouch for that assertion, but if it is true it somewhat flies in the face of ” HK’s home airline” . Can anyone shed any light on this point please?

  6. Headache says:

    One way or another, they should sort out this “air service morale” problem. The hostesses on sister line Dragonair are inexplicably more cheerful and perkier than the ones on Cathay. It’s become one of the few compensations of commuting to the mainland.

  7. Headache says:

    RTP, regarding your comment about the SEA origin of Cathay gals, I really don’t think it’s “most”. It depends heavily on the route. On SEA routes it’s maybe 50/50 whilst on others they seem to be almost exclusively HKers. I will intensify my research and update you on my findings at the next Aviation Corner.

  8. Incredulous says:

    One has to assume that Bela Lugosi is an unwashed American slob who thinks it’s nice to trample street-dirt/dogshit around his host’s home wearing his hobnail boots.. Just hope he never goes to Japan!

  9. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Headache

    You may indeed be correct about CX – it depends on the route (I only use CX for long-haul)

    But re KA you are certainly correct . I always fly KA to China (usually weekly) and I agree with you about the KA hostesses. And not just more cheerful and perkier but also much prettier.

    (But KA beware : SH Airlines now also serve Haagen-Daaz ice cream in economy )

  10. Headache says:

    RTP, I do agree KA girls are prettier than CX. Also, disembarking at Beijing is a dream – airport security is absolutely stacked with matching robobabes in black uniforms. They must be left over from the Olympics.

  11. maugrim says:

    Headache and RTP, be careful what you wish for. At one stage CX was known as ‘Mongkok Airways’ owing to the language skills and demeanour (kong lui) of its newly employed FA’s. I am glad to report that they have since remedied this.

    As to the gentleman’s rant, one hopes such a person isn’t often in charge of the lives of 350 odd passengers at 37,000 feet. The irony moaning about safety.

  12. Walter De Havilland says:

    I’ve got to say that CX is my airline of choice for long haul. They went through a bad patch a few years ago with FAs from the sink estates of Kowloon North, so I tried BA. I now realize it stands for Bad Attitude.

    Check out this


  13. darovia says:

    CX management are lousy crooks as well. Despite cartelisation of cargo charges and collusion on fuel surcharges they still suffer in downturns. They should stop messing about and get the mob in to help them. They would sort out the pilots’ morale before you could say ‘What’s in that violin case?’

    @RTP – I understand there are pretty strict rules about designating an airline’s ‘home’ for route alocation purposes. There has been a bit of bother recently about a non-HK asian airline trying to claim HK status.

  14. BillyBob Hicks says:

    Well Hemz, thanks for the well-reasoned reply. If you were inferring that I actually have a pulse, as opposed to your openly vampiric onhang, I’ll take that as a compliment, however it was intended.

    As to your hangers-on… maybe a bit less chair time would do them some good.

    @maugrim I’m sure the Professional ChairWarmers Rumours Network is infinitely less infantile. NOT. Good grief man. It’s a casual internet forum where people _ought_ to feel free to express themselves as they see fit without having to worry what the likes of you will think on Monday morning. Heaven forbid we look into your closet.

    @RealTaxPayer CX used to recruit cabin crew from 14 countries. They stopped doing this almost a decade ago. Prolly 80% of crew are locals by now. Cost you see? Housing allowances and all. Maybe the SEA country you are referring to is Mongkok?

    No idea on CX corporate tax structure, but from what I understand you’re suggesting it’s the same as every other HKG bluechip. Or not?

    I first flew with CX in ’96… their economy class product was nearly as good as most airlines’ business class. I recently flew buiz class on CX to BKK, and had to economy-class on Thai back. To my surprise, Thai economy class outshined CX buiz class by a mile. How they retain their rating as a top airline is beyond me.

    CX is on a clear downward trajectory. But it’s not the staff’s fault. Much as I think the Swire front office are complete buffoons, even they face formidable challenges. The main cost of a flight used to be crew, now it’s fuel. The aviation industry at large is a hostage of the dollar-oil peg. Most companies believe it vital necessity to hedge their fuel, but are finding that hedging is a fool’s game not even the professionals get right very often. Indeed, CX’s 2011 losses mostly accrued from wrong-way bets in the futures markets. Tsk tsk. I recently read Delta has figured a way out of this quagmire. It’s purchasing it’s own wells. CX’s next foray into the Outback won’t be for bushwhacking flyboys, but roughnecks.
    If they know what’s good for them.

  15. mumphLT says:

    I’d love to comment about CX but following the approach of the farcical customer service line I’ll keep you phuqers on hold for 4 hours.

  16. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Ah, the CX customer service line. It seems they can’t even afford the licensing fee for an entire track, so the hold music starts somewhere in the midst of a song, plays about 2 minutes of it, then loops again, again and again as you wait for hours on hold. Surely designed to make one go mad.

  17. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ BillyBob et al

    Just arrived HK on CX250 from the World’s WORST Airport ( LHR)

    Can’t comment on the on-flight service cos I passed on all the meals to avoid having that wretched tray in front of me for hours.

    Girls ( sorry FA’s) were OK. ( The boys were also quite good-looking if you into that side of the EOC thing / not my scene but at least they don’t do pure camp as do the BA guyesses )

    Hey Ho……….. tell you HK is a helluva better place than Old Blighty to live in , whatever our warts ( and “home” airline)

  18. mumphLT says:

    Still holding…?

    Good – be with you sometime…

  19. mumphLT says:

    Right – just wanted to say – if you are thinking or flying CX do not read PPRUNE sub forum ‘Fragrant Harbour’ – it will scare the shite out of your humble ‘SLF’.

  20. Spartacus says:

    To believe that the HK Civil Aviation Department is going to keep you alive is ludicrous! Most world-wide aviation safety regulations are formulated long AFTER the passengers have died and the cleaning crews have ‘sorted and swept up all the body parts’.

    Whilst some of the Flight Ops Inspectors at the CAD are excellent, very experienced, professional pilots, politics always over-ride safety. Ask the family of the ‘ recently-deceased Polish president Lech Kaczyński’. Ask an FOI if they get free trips home to Oz, or wherever they choose, from CX when they request to do a “check”.

    I seem to recall that it was Albert Lam Kwong-yu who was head of the CAD about 10 years ago when the pilots’ union was bringing to his attention a whole swathe of flight safety issues – which his department ignored. Funnily enough, he later became a director of HAECO (then a wholly-owned CX/Swire subsidiary). Not surprisingly, he was convicted of insider-trading HAECO shares in January.

    My advice is: Don’t rely on CAD to keep you safe but keep your seat belts fastened!

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