Hong Kong-based carrier Cathay Pacific said it has cancelled 12 flights per day before and during the Lunar New Year Spring Festival, as it aims to avoid last-minute delays and cancellations. Both Hong Kong authorities and local unions have protested the move.

Cathay has cancelled 6 pairs of flights each day until the end of February.

Cathay Pacific apologised for the flight cancellations and announced the formation of a team to investigate, after the city’s chief executive, John Lee, asked the flag carrier to immediately rebuild its flying capacity.

Spring Festival, the largest public holiday in China, begins on 10 February (Lunar New Year) and is between a week and two weeks long.

“We have taken measures to ensure Cathay Pacific’s flights will operate normally for the coming Chinese New Year travel peak,” CEO Ronald Lam said in a statement.

Cathay found itself in a similar position over Christmas and New Year, cancelling dozens of flights because of “higher than anticipated pilot absence caused by seasonal illness.” It said it learned from the experience, but

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Hong Kong’s Transport and Logistics Bureau said it was “highly concerned” by the move.

But unions said the airline’s Covid-19 pandemic policy of new contracts for pilots led to many staff leaving the airline – and apparently hampering its recovery.

Alex McGowan, Cathay’s COO, apologised to passengers while claiming the airline “underestimated the number of reserve pilots”.

“Given our January pilot rosters were already set in mid-December, the lack of adequate reserve levels persisted into January. In order to stabilise the current operation, we needed to cancel further flights across the first two weeks of January,” he said.

According to the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association (HKAOA), which represents Cathay Pacific pilots, the 2020 contract policy is the genesis of the current issues.

The HKAOA chair Paul Weatherilt said: “This is what happens when you don’t have enough pilots. There will always be some illness among crew but this doesn’t mean flights have to be cancelled.”