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Covid turbulence: Cathay Pacific to slash workforce, end Cathay Dragon brand

Reuters Sydney | Updated on October 21, 2020 Published on October 21, 2020

Cathay said it planned to operate less than 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity in 2021.   -  Reuters

Airline will cut 8,500 positions but 2,600 are unfilled currently; restructuring to cost $284 million

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd said on Wednesday it will slash 5,900 jobs and end its regional Cathay Dragon brand, joining peers in cutting costs as it grapples with a plunge in demand due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The airline would also seek changes in conditions in its contracts with cabin crew and pilots as part of a restructuring that would cost HK$2.2 billion ($283.9 million), it told the stock exchange.

Overall, it will cut 8,500 positions, or 24 per cent of its normal headcount, but that includes 2,600 roles currently unfilled due to cost reduction initiatives, Cathay said.

“The global pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on aviation and the hard truth is we must fundamentally restructure the group to survive,” Cathay Chief Executive Augustus Tang said in a statement.

Cathay shares jumped almost 7 per cent in early trade, with broker Jefferies saying the announcement removed a key overhang on the stock.

Singapore Airlines Ltd and Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd have already announced similarly large payroll cuts, as the International Air Transport Association forecasts passenger traffic will not recover until 2024.

Cathay, which has stored around 40 per cent of its fleet outside Hong Kong, said on Monday it planned to operate less than 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity in 2021.

After receiving a $5-billion rescue package led by the Hong Kong government in June, it had been conducting a strategic review that analysts expected would result in major job losses.

The airline said it was bleeding HK$1.5 billion to HK$2 billion of cash a month and the restructuring would stem the outflow by HK$500 million a month in 2021, with executive pay cuts continuing throughout next year.

BOCOM International analyst Luya You said she had expected more strategic insight from the airline on its fleet plans and route network as part of the restructuring.

“Had they revealed more on fleet planning for 2021-22, we would get a much better sense of their outlook,” she said.

The decision to end regional brand Cathay Dragon is in line with rival Singapore Airlines’ pre-pandemic move to fold regional brand Silkair into its main brand.

Cathay Dragon, once known as Dragonair, operated most of the group’s flights to and from mainland China and had been hit by falling demand before the pandemic due to widespread anti-government protests in Hong Kong that deterred mainland travellers.

Plans to end the brand earlier this year hit roadblocks from China’s aviation regulator because of infractions during last year’s pro-democracy protests, two sources told Reuters in May.

Seeking regulatory approval

Cathay said the airline would cease operating immediately and would seek regulatory approval to fold the majority of Cathay Dragon’s routes in Cathay Pacific and low-cost arm HK Express.

“Now that Cathay has decided on staff count and the elimination of the Dragon brand it knows the size of the airline and the structure going forward and can complete its new fleet and network plan,” said Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst.

Like Singapore Airlines, Cathay lacks a domestic market to cushion it from the fall in international travel due to border closures.

In September, Cathay’s passenger numbers fell by 98.1 per cent compared with a year earlier, though cargo carriage was down by a smaller 36.6 per cent .

Cathay shares have fallen 43 per cent since the start of January. In July, it reached agreement with Airbus SE to delay the delivery of A350s and A321neos and said it was in advanced talks with Boeing Co about deferring its 777-9 orders.

The airline’s share register is dominated by Swire Pacific Ltd, Air China Ltd, Qatar Airways and the Hong Kong government, with only a 12 per cent free float.

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Published on October 21, 2020
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