Cathay Pacific

How an airline manages the world’s biggest human migration

Over Chinese New Year Cathay Pacific geared up for a record number of flyers. PHIL HEARD speaks to the man on the frontline at Hong Kong International Airport

It’s the biggest movement of people in the world. Every Chinese New Year, millions of people in China head back to their family home from their place of work. TV news channels beam pictures of unimaginable crowds outside railway stations, waiting to travel.

Last year, just shy of three billion journeys were undertaken over the 40-day holiday period, which begins on 1 February this year.

While the vast majority of journeys were made by road and rail, air travel is growing fast as Chinese travellers spend more of their disposable income on flying and celebrating the holiday overseas.

In its 2017 report, travel agent Ctrip predicted that there would be six million outbound flights over the Chinese New Year period. That’s still dwarfed by domestic land journeys, but it was the highest on record. Ctrip cited the most popular destinations as Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, plus Japan and further afield to the US and Australia.

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It’s a pattern that Patrick Yu, general manager of airport service delivery at Cathay Pacific, has observed with mainland Chinese passengers transiting through Hong Kong over Chinese New Year. ‘People in Mainland China get more leave for the holiday, so there is a trend for more long-haul travel, which includes Australia and the US, as well as destinations across Southeast Asia – and to Hong Kong, too,’ he says.

Hong Kong has its own annual exodus, with an increased number of outbound trips over the holiday (which runs over 16-19 February in the city). Yu adds: ‘Chinese New Year is a very special time for Chinese people in Hong Kong, so it will be extremely busy for Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong International Airport. A busy time like this is the best time for an airline to prove how capable it is in terms of operational reliability and service standards.’

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Yu says the travel patterns for Hongkongers making the most of the New Year holiday differ slightly from mainland China. ‘The busiest time during the peak period is actually two to three days before Chinese New Year in Hong Kong and after the first day of Chinese New Year. The tradition is to stay at home for the first day of the new year, but that has been changing because people treasure public holidays more than tradition these days.’

The figures back it up, as Henry Lau, assistant manager baggage services, outlines. ‘During the Chinese New Year peak last year the number of bags handled for Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon flights at Hong Kong International Airport soared from the daily average of around 45,000 a day to more than 55,900 on the busiest day.’

More bags means more people at the airport, and load factors on Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon aircraft are also higher, which in turn means that staffing levels are kept high at the airport and contingencies planned. Pretty much all of the 4,000-strong team who work at the HKIA terminals and around the aircraft on the ramp – plus the 1,000 people overseas – will be involved at some point over Chinese New Year.

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Yu says: ‘In terms of manpower our team will be fully geared up for the peak. Preparation actually started a long time ago and we work with all the departments across the airlines.’

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This includes revenue management to manage and monitor bookings of individual flights; engineering to ensure aircraft are in the best possible condition; and the rostering teams who manage pilot and cabin crew shifts. Yu says: ‘We need to have a buffer for our operations in case of any unexpected circumstances during the festive season.

‘Over Chinese New Year, our teams will all be ready at the key airports to serve customers. We know that our people will be working busily at the frontline. It’s always easy to brag about how good you are on the easy days, but during this kind of peak season it’s also a good test for us as well. Our team is very excited about every peak period because we believe this is a time that shows the difference between us and other airlines.’

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