AIRPORTS | Staff shortage dents Hong Kong air hub reboot hopes

Regional airlines are struggling to ramp up flights to Hong Kong due to a shortage of workers at the airport, slowing the city’s plan to recapture its travel hub status, industry insiders tell AFP.

Hong Kong, which calls itself Asia’s World City, once had one of the globe’s busiest – and best-connected – airports.

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That evaporated during the coronavirus pandemic, as authorities imposed more than two years of travel curbs and quarantine rules.

The business hub has begun reopening with leader John Lee proclaiming in November that “Hong Kong is back”.

But around 20 regional Asian airlines have been unable to restart or increase services to the city despite months of negotiations with ground handling services, five airline executives told AFP, asking not to be named.

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The executives complained that ground handling companies were upping fees by 30% to 100% and prioritising parent companies or mostly Chinese airlines that they have close, or direct, business ties to.

Some warned it was becoming difficult to convince their headquarters to keep a presence in Hong Kong.

“What an irony to say ‘Hong Kong is back’,” one of those interviewed said.

“How can Hong Kong continue to be ‘Asia’s World City’ if everyone other than the few big companies can never come back?”

In 2019, Hong Kong had 46,000 support staff handling nearly 420,000 flights and more than 71 million passengers.

More than 35% of the staff – about 16,550 people – had left the industry by the end of 2021, according to official figures.

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Last year, the airport handled just 5.7 million passengers, with 1.6 million in December alone after the city had dropped mandatory quarantine two months earlier.

A former ground handling employee who left recently told AFP that his company was deploying just 200 people in his department compared with 1,000 before the pandemic.

Those who remained worked long hours to make up for shortages while salaries remained slashed at pandemic levels, he added.

“Attracting and training new hands did not happen as fast as hoped,” Li Wing-foo, president of the Staff and Workers Union of Hong Kong Civil Airlines, said, adding that the basic monthly pay of HK$13,000 to HK$14,000 (US$1,700 to US$1,800) was not competitive.

“We told them in early 2022 to start replenishing staff after we saw other airport services broke down. But I haven’t seen any substantial steps taken,” he said.

Ground handling services at Hong Kong’s airport are controlled by three companies that have direct business ties to certain airlines. — AFP

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