According to new documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Britain’s aviation regulator launched an internal investigation into Hong Kong’s pandemic quarantine rules after British Airways pilots and cabin crew were imprisoned in a notorious government-run quarantine facility on multiple occasions.
In November 2021, British Airways concluded that the risk of more crew being “incarcerated” in the Penny’s Bay quarantine camp was too great, and it halted all flights to the Chinese region.
At the earliest, the airline plans to return to Hong Kong in March.
After two sets of the crew were sent to the camp in quick succession, a representative for British Airways wrote to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) expressing concerns about the implications on crew mental health.
Shortly after the initial incident, British Airways wrote to the CAA to explain the “extremely minimum provisions for comfort” that crews were compelled to suffer in Penny’s Bay.
If any of their colleagues returned a positive COVID-19 test result on arrival in Hong Kong, crew members who tested negative multiple times might still face a 21-day term in quarantine.
“There are concerns also around the mental health of the crew who are holed up at the facility for an extended period,” the letter obtained by Al Jazeera continued.
“Significant diplomatic activity is required to get the crew released from the facility prior to the expiry of the 21‐day quarantine period and, additionally, released crew is not permitted to leave HKG on passenger services.
British Airways complained that returning crew to the UK on cargo-only aircraft was costing them additional money.
“We have had to operate additional freight‐only flights to repatriate our crew. With the recent tightening of the immigration policy, the continued viability of the crew stop in HKG has been brought into question, both in terms of duty of care and from the perspective of short‐notice operational disruption.”
“Have we had any communications with HKG regarding the ‘incarceration’ of aircrew as indicated by BA?” a CAA officer wrote in an internal email. Is there anything more we can look into? The importance of mental health is undeniable.”
“Driving operators (airlines) to use longer FTL (Flight Time Limitations) to avoid layovers is in no one’s interest,” the official wrote in response to a request by British Airways to run its Hong Kong services as a turnaround with the same flight.
“Agree that the situation seems very awful for staff,” another CAA official wrote. The fact that the new South African (Omicron) variation has been discovered in HKG is probably not helping matters.
It’s not a topic we’ve looked into — in the UK, it would most likely need multiple people/departments. I understand that it has ramifications for safety, but that kind of policy is decided elsewhere.”
“I would suggest that in the first instance BA talks to the relevant people in DfT (Department for Transport) who deal with multi-bi-lateral crew concerns”.
Although a CAA spokeswoman stated it would be “inappropriate” to comment on whether Hong Kong’s pandemic quarantine measures genuinely posed an aviation safety risk, the agency subsequently granted an exemption from the Flight Time Limitation guidelines.
Normally, after a long-haul flight, pilots must be given a minimum amount of rest in the destination, but the exemption permitted BA to fly its crew back home without a respite “subject to a safety case being accepted.”
Despite this, British Airways canceled their flights, citing a need to balance “the requirement to comply with local legislation, safeguard the safety and wellness of our personnel while maintaining a consistent service for our customers.”