SCMP Saturday, June 23, 2001

Pilots' cause can never take off without public sympathy

Over the past decade, Cathay Pacific Airways has been haunted by labour disputes. Threats of disruption to service have become familiar news each travelling season, frustrating those who want to fly Hong Kong's flagship airline.
Now it is happening again. Cathay pilots are poised to take "limited industrial action" from July 1 in a bid to pressure management to respond to three long-standing demands. Their yet-to-be-disclosed action is designed to escalate in four or five stages should the two sides fail to compromise.
The pilots' first demand concerns pay. At the centre of the storm is a three-year agreement reached in 1999. When the contract was signed, Cathay warned members of the 1,260-member Aircrew Officers' Association (AOA) that they would face dismissal if they rejected the deal, which imposed pay cuts on senior pilots. The AOA now says the document includes a clause allowing renegotiation at the end of the second year. This clause has emerged as a time bomb. The union now wants to turn the pay cuts for senior pilots into a pay rise for all.
The AOA is the most powerful union in the SAR. Its membership dues reportedly add up to more than $10 million a year. It employs full-time executives and has hired a public-relations firm to help fight the current battle. It placed full-page advertisements in the SAR's newspapers, accusing the company of blemishing Hong Kong's efforts to establish itself as Asia's world city. But given the still-sluggish state of our economy, even the best PR cannot buy the public's sympathy when Hong Kong is still suffering an unemployment rate of 4.6 per cent.
Both sides accuse the other of misleading the public. The company maintains that more than 200 Cathay pilots enjoy annual salary-and-benefit packages exceeding $3 million. Nigel Demery, AOA's president and a senior captain, counters by telling reporters he earns $1.7 million a year, including allowances. Though he might think he scores points with this, he is losing the public. Few Hong Kongers can sympathise with such high-paid whingers.
The union has produced figures indicating its members are underpaid in comparison with counterparts in Australia, Britain and North America. Cathay has produced numbers to prove otherwise. In any case, the public is likely to dismiss the pilots' case, suggesting they seek pastures new.
The bottom line is that Cathay is offering a nine per cent increase in "hourly duty pay" for B-scale pilots based outside Hong Kong and an eight per cent increase for those based here. That sounds luxurious to many, as civil servants are getting rises of only 2.5 per cent to 4.9 per cent after a two-year freeze. Many see the pilots' vote to seek increases as high as 32 per cent as outrageous.
Inconvenience to travellers aside, any "limited" industrial action by the pilots is bound to have a negative impact on the air-freight and tourism industries, in which some operators are struggling. Many working people are striving to make ends meet. The Mass Transit Railway's proposed average fare increase of 2.5 per cent and the Kowloon-Canton Railway's of 3.1 per cent have triggered a public outcry and a hunger strike by some legislators.
Negotiations are about brinkmanship. The pilots should know they are pushing themselves over the edge. The AOA's predominantly expatriate membership and its expat advisers appear out of touch with public sentiment - and could not even provide a Cantonese speaker to put their message across to the local audience.
They leave the impression that a bunch of highly paid expats are about to sacrifice Hong Kong's interests for their own. When they accuse Cathay management of tarnishing the SAR's international image, they should know the public will see them as the guilty party should they press ahead with their threats.
Cathay effectively enjoyed monopolistic status during its heyday, but those days are over. The company is under mounting pressure to compete. The AOA's confrontational tactics go against the public's wish for some breathing space for the economy to rebound.
Even so, the pilots' apparently excessive demands for remuneration do not exonerate management for its lack of vision. The company failed to introduce a localisation scheme early enough. At present, only one in 10 Cathay pilots are local Chinese, and they are hired on local rather than expat terms.
Hong Kong-based aircrew can save the airline considerably on housing allowances in the long run. But it takes years of experience, if not decades, to become a senior pilot, so the company will have to rely on its expat pilots for the foreseeable future.
The pilots' second demand concerns discrepancies between local and expat terms of employment. They are unhappy that colleagues who came on board after 1993 have a slimmer package and denounce the arrangement as discriminatory. Most who joined the company on the new terms are local Chinese.
The question boils down to whether longer-serving pilots are overpaid or newcomers underpaid. The AOA can hardly expect to muster public sympathy on the money issue. The pilots' best strategy is to drop their call for pay rises. This could help them win public support on their third demand - for better rostering.
In any case, Cathay must turn this crisis-in-the-making into an opportunity to resolve its problems with the pilots once and for all.
Albert Cheng King-hon ( ) is a broadcaster and publisher.