Hong Kong, which calls itself Asia’s World City, once had one of the globe’s busiest — and best-connected — airports.
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.
The executives complained that ground handling companies were upping fees by 30 to 100 per cent 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 told AFP.
“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 per cent of the staff — about 16,550 people — had left the industry by the end of 2021, according to official figures.
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, told AFP, adding that the basic monthly pay of HK$13,000-HK$14,000 ($1,700-$1,800) was not competitive.
“We told them in early 2022 to start replenishing staff after we saw other airport services break 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, fuelling a sense of grievance among some foreign carriers that they are second in line.
Hong Kong Airport Services (HAS) is a subsidiary of city carrier Cathay Pacific.
SATS Hong Kong is a joint venture of Hong Kong Airlines and Singapore Airport Terminal Services.
The third, Jardine Aviation Services, is a joint venture of China National Aviation Holding and British conglomerate Jardine Matheson which has major investments in China.
None of the three companies responded to AFP’s requests for comment.
Second in line?
The executives AFP interviewed said local competitors such as Hong Kong Airlines, and Hong Kong Express as well as Chinese mainland airlines including Tianjin Airlines, West Air and Capital Airlines have all been able to increase flights recently with access to ground handling crews.
Meanwhile, they were struggling to do the same.
“Since when has Hong Kong become a place where you can do business only when you are propped up?” one of the executives said.
Hong Kong’s government is aware of the staffing shortages.
The Airport Authority told AFP that it “has been closely monitoring the manpower situation” and has been supporting job fairs and adopting autonomous technology to reduce reliance on labour.
In a joint statement, Hong Kong’s Transport and Logistics Bureau and the Civil Aviation Department said they were aware of “the manpower need in the industry” and were working “to ensure the resumption of air traffic in an orderly manner”.
Aviation analyst Herman Tse said Hong Kong’s geographical location is its prime advantage, but international connections are crucial.
“Like Singapore, Hong Kong does not have domestic flights so international flights would be very important for the recovery,” he told AFP.