Cathay Pacific Airways may look like a publicly listed, part-hong/part-Beijing-owned, profit-making business dedicated to maximizing returns to its shareholders. But its number-one priority is, in fact, the selfless protection of the Hong Kong economy and defence of the city’s Basic Law. We know this because it has announced its opposition to budget carrier Jetstar’s application to operate out of Big Lychee International on these very grounds. Jetstar HK is ultimately owned by Qantas, and therefore ‘does not meet the requirements of Article 134’, and “putting some of Hong Kong’s valuable and limited air traffic rights into the hands of a carrier that is controlled by a foreign airline would also be very damaging to the local aviation industry and the Hong Kong economy.”
Foreign… nasty, alien, swarthy, ill-kempt, low-bred, loud, incomprehensible and pagan; stinking the place out with disgusting garlicky food; indulging in dancing, singing and public displays of affection at all hours; lowering property values when they move into the neighbourhood; squatting on the sidewalk; not keeping their kids in order; openly burping. Ugh! Not like CX – that clean-living, wholesome, natural-born, 45% Swire/30% Air China native of our shores, noble and trusted guardian of the community’s ‘valuable and limited’ air traffic rights.
If Jetstar were, say, some Southeast Asian outfit, this might stick. But Qantas has an impeccable brand in Hong Kong and globally, on a par with CX. So does God’s own Australia itself, the lucky country that shelters numerous Hong Kong folk and provides a large chunk of Cathay’s workforce. Jetstar HK has some political cover through part-owner, big Mainland carrier China Eastern. And it hopes to address the domestic residency side of things through its links with casino king Stanley Ho’s Shun Tak Holdings. Much depends on whether the Hong Kong government buys the argument that it is in the public’s interest to protect something called the ‘local aviation industry’ and the economy in general from an airline offering cheaper fares.
Back in the late 80s/early 90s, Cathay Pacific would wheel out an immaculately suited, red-faced rotundity called Richard Stirland on occasions like this. He would successfully argue that upstart airlines (notably the fledgling Dragonair) would inflict great harm on us all if allowed a licence to fly out of Hong Kong. But those were different times. Cathay’s British owners, the Swires, assured the colonial power in London that their airline would patriotically buy Rolls-Royce engines. Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary for a while was former Swire Pacific Chairman Sir John Bremridge. A Swire director, Lydia Dunn, sat on the Executive Council.
This is 2013. Cathay’s ability to pull strings in high places can be gauged from the fact that they think it’s cool to take Democratic Party boss Albert Ho and pro-Beijing trade unionist Cheng Yiu-tong on a junket to France. The flag-carrier will probably maintain, as they did in the past, that it was they who ‘invested’ in the development of its network and service quality, and it would be not only unfair for them but bad for Hong Kong to allow interlopers not burdened by a legacy high-cost structure to cherry-pick and threaten their overall operation’s economic viability. Jetstar will perhaps reply that it wants rights to operate on many under-served routes, and that competition is surely a good thing. (CX could then wittily counter-attack by pointing out that Stanley Ho has seen off rival ferry companies trying to break his monopoly on the Hong Kong-Macau run.)
Cathay’s ace up the sleeve could be state-owned Air China (though the latter has a stake in state-owned China Eastern). But in an era when Hongkongers’ patience has worn thin over property scams and supermarket duopolies, it will be impossible for officials to completely ignore public opinion when deciding just how, exactly, lower air-transport costs would damage the economy – or, to put it another way, how higher ticket prices are supposed to be good for us.