Cathay draws backlash for forbidding staff from participating in ‘illegal’ protests as shares plunge

File photo of Cathay Pacific planes at Hong Kong International Airport. Photo via Reuters.
File photo of Cathay Pacific planes at Hong Kong International Airport. Photo via Reuters.

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific drew flack from protesters — and apparent fear from investors — after it forbade its employees from taking part in “illegal” demonstrations following a ban from Beijing barring those who support Hong Kong’s long-running protest movement from manning Cathay flights going through the mainland.

Cathay shares lost 4.37 percent to HK$9.85 by the break in Hong Kong, with the carrier’s parent company, Swire Pacific Ltd., plunging 5.26 percent to HK$77.50. The nosedive comes as the airline is caught up in pro-democracy protests that have rocked the city for more than two months.

On Friday, Beijing’s aviation regulator ordered Cathay to submit a list of the identities of staff working on flights to the mainland or passing through its airspace.

It warned any staff members involved in “illegal protests” would be banned from such flights.

Cathay’s CEO Rupert Hogg said in a message to staff on Saturday that the airline was obliged to comply with the new rules set out by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

“Cathay Pacific Group’s operations in mainland China are key to our business. In addition to flying in and out of mainland China, a large number of our routes both to Europe and to the USA also fly through mainland China airspace,” Hogg wrote.

“We are therefore legally required to follow CAAC regulations and, as is the case with any notices issued by any regulatory authority having jurisdiction over us, we must and will comply.”

Cathay appears to have become a target of Beijing’s ire after some of its crew joined protests and media reported one of its pilots had been charged with rioting.

The carrier’s chairman, John Slosar, has defended his staff’s right to freedom of thought, saying “we certainly wouldn’t dream of telling them what they have to think about something.”

But Hogg cautioned staff about their behavior.

“Though people may share different views, it is essential that we all respect each other, our customers and members of the public,” he wrote.

The new comes as protesters gather at Hong Kong International Airport today in protest of police’s heavy-handed response to city-wide protests yesterday.

A letter purportedly from Hogg to the carrier’s staff being circulated online warned of the airline’s “zero tolerance policy on illegal activities,” and noted that today’s airport protest, as an unsanctioned rally, would be considered as such.

“Specifically, in the current context, there will be disciplinary consequences for employees who support or participate in illegal protests,” the letter continues. “These consequences could be serious and may include termination of employment.”

Given the charged political environment, the backlash online was swift. One netizen vowed to never travel on a Cathay flight “ever again.”

“Tore [up] my Marco Polo Club card,” another Twitter user said, referring to Cathay’s rewards program. “Why pay so much for a cowardly company that does not value their staff/patrons that built it. Skip expensive fares/bad food!”

Cathay has suspended a pilot who has been accused of rioting after allegedly participating in the Hong Kong protests, and it said Saturday that it had fired two airport ground staff, without specifying why.

Local media reported that they were accused of leaking the travel details of a Hong Kong police football team that was traveling to the mainland.

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