The new measures took effect Monday. Now, instead of having to isolate in a hotel room at their own expense for three nights, tourists and business travelers can return home or to other accommodation, as long as they monitor their health for three days, including taking rapid Covid tests.
Cathay said Friday that it would add more than 200 flight services in October to regional and long-haul destinations, with increased capacity in particular on routes to the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo.
“We welcome the relaxation for travelers. This will absolutely increase the demand for travel to and from Hong Kong,” Christoph Meyer, Lufthansa’s general manager of sales for Hong Kong, Macao and South China, said in a statement.
But he cautioned that “restrictions for non-locally based air crews remains,” referring to the need for staff not based in Hong Kong to still quarantine in hotels.
Meyer described the requirement as “a major concern” for airlines looking to increase flights to Hong Kong.
“The flight will operate four times per week until 18 December, followed by a daily service from then onwards,” the company said in a statement.
Japan Airlines will ramp up capacity between Tokyo and Hong Kong, starting Oct. 31.
Road to recovery
More than two years of border restrictions had crippled Hong Kong’s role as a global aviation hub.
International Air Transport Association Director General Willie Walsh said last week that China’s zero-Covid policy had “devastated” Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong has lost its position as a global hub and will struggle to regain it because other hubs have taken advantage of it,” he said.
Friday’s news puts Hong Kong back on “the right track,” said Dr. Kam Hung Ng, assistant professor of aviation engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
He told CNN Business that Hong Kong still had advantages that could allow its aviation industry to recover to pre-pandemic levels, “or even more.”
Hong Kong’s location allows it to serve as an international transit and logistics gateway for many Asian destinations, as well as mainland China.
“This is not the thing that can be easily changed,” said Ng, noting that the city is also an important part of China’s Greater Bay Area, an economic zone that connects Guangdong province with other territories.
Once travel restrictions are fully removed, “the demand will come back,” he predicted.
But there are still two major hurdles that lie ahead for carriers.
Airlines need more staff as many pilots retired or left the industry during the pandemic, said Ng. Even if those staffers return, they will need to be retrained, which could take two or three weeks per person, he added.
Then there is the need to literally dust off old aircraft. Several airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, have sent their planes to be stored in other countries during the pandemic, so they will need to be brought back to do “all the maintenance checks again before serving the public,” noted Ng. “It takes time.”
He said that could mean a lead time of roughly six months for some airlines to get all their aircraft checked and ready to fly again.
A long haul
That’s why many passengers won’t see a return to normal anytime soon.
Korean Air told CNN Business that it had already increased frequency of flights between Seoul and Hong Kong in July, when previous quarantine measures in the Chinese city were reduced. The airline will likely maintain its current level for the near future, according to a spokesperson.
A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines told CNN Business it would be flexible in any adjustments to its service of two daily return flights to Hong Kong.
Xie Xingquan, IATA’s regional vice president for North Asia, welcomed the lifting of quarantine in Hong Kong but warned of the challenges ahead for businesses.
“The entire aviation value chain in Hong Kong needs to be prepared for a surge in travel from pent up demand, similar to what we have seen in other markets as soon as quarantine measures are lifted,” he said in a statement shared with CNN Business.
“Having the required manpower is key to avoiding the problems seen in European and US airports,” he added.
— CNN’s Tom Booth contributed to this report.