American, United Airlines Cancel Hong Kong Flights Over Mandatory Crew Testing

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Airlines temporarily halt flights after city ends testing exemption for crews amid rise in local coronavirus transmissions

HONG KONG—Two U.S. airlines have canceled flights to and from Hong Kong after the city said all crew members arriving there would have to undergo Covid-19 tests.

Following a new outbreak of local infections, Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection on Wednesday started making all crew, including pilots, on flights arriving at Hong Kong International Airport provide “deep throat saliva specimens.”

A United Airlines Holdings Inc.’s UAL +8.12% spokesman said due to the recent changes in testing protocols, flights to Hong Kong had been suspended through July 10 as have their corresponding return flights. He added the company was currently assessing how this would affect future operations.

American Airlines Group Inc. AAL +5.55% was scheduled to resume flights to Hong Kong Jul. 9 but said in a statement it now wouldn’t restart the flights until Aug. 5.

“We’ve been making regular adjustments to our schedule to match demand, and we consider a range of factors including travel restrictions or entry requirements in making network decisions,” the company said.

The association, which is the union for American Airlines pilots, said it had been speaking with the airline’s management since the introduction of the rules. American Airlines didn’t return a request for comment, but a flight scheduled to leave Dallas-Fort Worth Thursday has been canceled, according to the American Airlines website.

Airlines world-wide are grappling with the impact of the coronavirus, which has cratered travel demand and saddled them with huge losses. The news comes as airlines prepare to cut thousands of workers and tap government loans as a surge of coronavirus cases and fresh government travel restrictions elsewhere upended a nascent recovery in travel. United on Wednesday said it is exploring the possibility of shedding almost half its U.S. workforce a week after American said it may have as many as 20,000 more staff than it needs to handle reduced demand.

In many countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., pilots and crew are exempted from testing, quarantine or self-isolation rules that other arrivals are required to undertake.

In Hong Kong, almost all arrivals in the city are subjected to mandatory testing and required to quarantine for two weeks. The policy has been credited with keeping infections low in the city, which has recorded 1,366 cases so far with seven deaths.

Airline crew were exempted from tests and quarantine requirements, but testing rules were tightened after a 54-year-old cargo pilot on July 4 tested positive for the virus after returning from Turkey and Kazakhstan.

Hong Kong health officials announced the change earlier in the week, saying they wanted to identify new cases of the virus and prevent it spreading locally. Those who fail to comply are liable for a fine and prison time.

On Thursday, a day after testing of airline crew started, Hong Kong government officials said three pilots and a flight attendant had tested positive for Covid-19.

Hong Kong has seen a resurgence of coronavirus cases in the past week, after weeks of no locally transmitted infections. The city Thursday reported a record 34 community cases and eight imported cases.

Hong Kong authorities said Thursday that they will tighten social-distancing rules, with restaurants restricted to operating at just 60% of capacity, eight people maximum at a restaurant table and groups of four at bars.

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