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Hong Kong quarantine raises safety concerns for UK Civil Aviation | Aviation

Muslim Wolrd NewsHong Kong quarantine raises safety concerns for UK Civil Aviation | Aviation

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Hong Kong’s harsh quarantine policies have sparked discussion at the UK’s aviation watchdog about air safety and the wellbeing of crew, emails obtained by Al Jazeera reveal.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) officials broached the issue of safety in November after the entire crew of a British Airways (BA) flight was sent to a quarantine camp in Hong Kong in response to a single crew member testing positive for COVID-19.

BA subsequently contacted the CAA seeking an exemption from flight time limits – known as Flight and Duty Time Limitations (FTL) – to avoid laying over in Hong Kong and running the risk of having aircrew quarantined in future, citing concerns about their mental health as well as conditions in the camp.

After BA’s request, CAA officials expressed concerns about the impact of Hong Kong’s quarantine policies on aircrews’ mental wellbeing, according to the emails, which were obtained following a freedom of information request.

“Have we had any contacts with HKG regarding the ‘incarceration’ of aircrew as described by BA?” a CAA official wrote to a colleague, referring to the Hong Kong government.

“Do we have any channels we can explore? The mental well being concern is very real. Driving operators to utilise extended FTL to avoid lay overs [sic] is in nobodies [sic] interest.”

In response, the CAA colleague said he agreed the “situation sounds pretty horrendous for crew”.

“Probably not helped by the fact that the new South African variant has been found in HKG. It is not a subject we have engaged in – like in the UK would likely involved different people/departments,” the colleague said, before suggesting the British airline should contact officials at the Department for Transport responsible for “multi/bi-lateral crew concerns”.

“I know it has safety implications, but that kind of policy is determined elsewhere.”

CAA emails released under FOI CAA officials discussed the safety implications of Hong Kong’s strict quarantine rules [File: Al Jazeera]

The CAA officials involved in the discussions included Malcolm Rusby, head of state safety partnerships, although it is not clear who said what due to redactions made to the emails before their release.

In its correspondence with the CAA in November, BA raised concerns about “very basic provisions for comfort” for crew quarantined at the Penny’s Bay quarantine facility in Hong Kong.

“There are concerns also around the mental health of the crew who are holed up at the facility for an extended period,” an airline representative wrote.

“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 are not permitted to leave HKG on passenger services. 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.”

The British airline suspended flights to Hong Kong days after writing to the CAA, and in December announced it would put all flights to the city on hold until March.

In January, Al Jazeera spoke to four current and former pilots in Hong Kong who said the city’s quarantine rules raised air safety concerns due to the strain being placed on aircrews’ mental health and wellbeing.

Under Hong Kong’s strict “zero COVID” policy, the aviation hub has mandated some of the longest quarantine stays on earth and slapped temporary flight bans on numerous airlines and destinations.

In a rare easing of controls, authorities last week announced that mandatory quarantine for incoming travellers would be cut from 21 to 14 days from February 5.

CAA emails released under FOI A CAA official said the mental wellbeing of crews flying to Hong Kong was a ‘very real’ concern [File: Al Jazeera]

A spokesperson for the CAA told Al Jazeera it would “not be appropriate” to comment on whether Hong Kong’s quarantine policies raised air safety concerns.

The spokesperson said the watchdog had granted BA an FTL exemption for the London Heathrow-Hong Kong route in December following its request “subject to a safety case being accepted” by the aviation watchdog.

FTL rules were designed by aviation regulators in the 1970s when flight times rarely exceeded 14 hours, and exemptions are not uncommon in the long-haul era. Obtaining an exemption does not remove the need for airlines to meet basic safety requirements.

A spokesperson for BA said the airline worked to balance “the need to comply with local regulations, ensure the safety and wellbeing of our teams while providing a consistent service for our customers”.

Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department referred Al Jazeera to a previous statement in which it said aircrew had a legal obligation not to work if they believed they were unfit to fly and airlines should “make proper arrangements to meet the relevant public health and flight safety requirements”.



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