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Onwards and upwards

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Reflecting on a tough 2020, Elizabeth Jerabek focuses on the resilience of the many Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon families in DB, and the feeling of community their plight has engendered

Looking back on the last 11 months, one of the best ways to sum up 2020 is that it was the year in which almost every single day felt like your whole life could change. From COVID-19 test results and illness, to sudden relocations and departures from Hong Kong, to the loss of domestic helpers, to school closures, to divorces, to weddings postponed or cancelled, to job losses and salary reductions, almost no one has come through this year unscathed.

Cathay Pacific’s announcement on October 21 of the company’s restructuring and the closure of the regional carrier Cathay Dragon is a recent example of how COVID-19 has reshaped our world in ways both large and small. Around 4,000 cabin crew, 600 pilots, and 700 ground staff and office workers at Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon lost their jobs as a result of the HK$2.2 billion restructuring, while others are facing punitive pay cuts.

The economic fallout of Cathay Pacific’s restructuring has been felt across the city, but its impact is particularly severe on Lantau. Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon families have long made their home in Discovery Bay, due to its proximity to the airport, and their plight has impacted the whole community. Friends and neighbours have been letting go of their helpers, scrambling to downsize to smaller flats and packing up to leave Hong Kong… It’s felt like the end of an era.  Despite that, it’s been moving to see the general outpouring of sympathy for all those who have been affected.

Photos by Baljit Gidwani

Braced for impact
“The initial shock is quite brutal and you feel abandoned. It’s very difficult to get your head around,” opens Jon Rebbeck, a Cathay Dragon pilot who was made redundant in October. “If you scale it down to a personal level, if you’ve got more expenditure than you’ve got income, you’ve got to do something about it. You can’t keep going into debt.”

Jon had been with Cathay Dragon, or Dragonair as it was then, since 2001. Initially employed as a first officer, he was promoted to captain within three years. After that, he moved back and forth – working in Cathay Pacific management, as a trainer and examiner for the Civil Aviation Department, and flying for Cathay Dragon, which is what he was doing up until he was made redundant.

“I was lucky,” he says. “I took a voluntary redundancy from Thomas Cook Airlines in the UK in 2001 but I already had a first interview at Dragonair in Hong Kong. Since then, I’ve always lived on Lantau – from the first 10 years in DB, to Ham Tin, to now in Tung Chung.”

Although the job loss is painful for Jon, with 19 years at Cathay Dragon under his belt, he had already started to focus on his retirement. He now plans to leave Hong Kong early next year, and move to France to the house he owns in Charente.

“I am looking at it positively, for me, as a new beginning,” says Jon. “But even so, there is lots to sort out – taxes, MPF and shipping arrangements. It’s a nightmare.”

Like so many of us, Jon’s heart goes out to the young pilots within the Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon community, particularly those with families to support. “The shock of the job loss is horrendous,” he says, “but then to have the additional pressure of supporting a family and dealing with things like international schools fees… It’s unbelievably
difficult, particularly when you have to make those decisions very quickly in a short period of time.”

Hope on the horizon
While the DB community has come out in force to help friends and neighbours through this difficult time, pilots like Jon have been in a unique position to offer guidance.
“I’ve tried to give good advice to the younger guys I’ve spoken to,” he says. “They should stay focused and positive as they will definitely get the chance to fly again and continue their careers.

“I was here for the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003, and for the 2008 financial crisis,” Jon adds. “Things come back more quickly in this part of the world than they do in the States or in Europe. I don’t know why that would be, but it seems like it is.”

Indeed for many, the impending launch of Greater Bay Airlines (GBA) by Hong Kong businessman Bill Wong Cho-bau, is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Waiting on approvals from Hong Kong authorities, GBA plans to begin providing air services between Hong Kong and the mainland by summer 2021. To launch with three Boeing 737 jets, GBA will need to hire at least 300 staff and there are plans to grow the fleet to as many as seven jets by the end of 2021, 30 by 2025.

And there are, of course, alternative careers for Cathay Pacific Group pilots to consider. Jon is quick to point out that pilots have qualities and abilities that make them attractive to other industries. “Pilots tend to be highly motivated with excellent leadership skills, as well as critical thinking and decision-making skills,” he says.

In fact, businesses across Hong Kong have already started recruiting, with property agencies and insurance companies particularly interested in hiring former Cathay Pacific Group cabin crew to fill key customer service positions. Their hospitality training and expertise, their experience in dealing with passengers and their communication skills – especially if they are bilingual or multilingual – make them highly employable.

Two of Hong Kong’s biggest estate agents, Centaline Property Agency and Ricacorp Properties, as well as insurance companies AIA, Prudential, Manulife, and the beauty treatment brand, Perfect Shape, are all actively recruiting. In order to help former cabin crew staff make informed career decisions, some companies are offering to provide free retraining even before formal contracts of employment are signed.

Navigating change
DB resident Nikki Guy – who is a family and child therapist and a director at the private practice Integrate hk – has a clear understanding of what the Cathay Pacific restructuring means for families in DB. The father of her nine-year-old son works at Cathay Pacific, and as a result her family is part of the network of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon families in DB.

Looking for a way to help, Nikki is offering free phone support for all those in need of counselling as a result of the restructuring. She says she’s been overwhelmed by people reaching out for help on how to navigate the change for themselves and for their families.

“A dramatic change, like the one announced by Cathay Pacific, can be incredibly overwhelming for both individuals and families,” says Nikki. “A change like this is internalised and manifests itself in different ways both physically, emotionally and psychologically. Sometimes the consequential impact can be ever so subtle and these are the things that we need to look out for to help each other.

“There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ way of processing a loss, each person’s experiences will be unique,” Nikki adds. “Each person will have their own way of dealing with it. The families I have seen have reminded me of the power of resilience in the face of adversity.”

Nikki is also quick to point out how important it is to have a strong support network – acquaintances, friends and family who can provide non-judgmental feedback, advice
and suggestions on how to move forward and gain new perspectives. “I have been moved by people stepping up to support others within the Cathay Dragon community,” she
concludes. “It has been a privilege to also be part of the Midvale community in DB, where I have seen at first hand families coming together to share their kindness, support
and compassion.”

Numbers to call
Staff members of the Cathay Pacific Group can call the Hong Kong Labour Department’s dedicated hotline (3580 1442 and 3580 1443) with enquiries on their employment rights and benefits.

Special service counters have also been set up at the LD’s 13 job centres to provide priority registration and employment services for affected employees

For a reduced rate on counselling with Nikki Guy, call 6900 7798


Comment(s) on - Onwards and upwards

  • Luke Smith Reply

    “focuses on the resilience of the many Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon families in DB,”. I agree that the Cathay Dragon and, indeed, the Cathay Pacific families are showing incredible resilience and adaptability. It would have been nice if this article had touched on that in any way. We must have hundreds who actually live in DB, and are an integral part of the community, yet you chose not to actually interview any of them or hear their stories. Disappointing.

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