Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Group has given its clearest hint yet of job losses among pilots as part of its COVID-19 "structural change" review, ahead of crunch talks in around two weeks, a media report said on Monday.

Alex McGowan, the general manager of aircrew, said in a memo to the company's 4,100 cockpit crew that the flag carrier's priority "is to preserve pilots' jobs where we can", the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper reported.

"Challenging conversations" to be had

Cathay has said upcoming discussions with the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association (HKAOA), representing unionised pilots, would involve "challenging conversations". "We had hoped that by now we would have met with the HKAOA to begin to work through the implications of the crisis for our Hong Kong-based pilots," McGowan said in the memo.

Cathy Pacific
Cathy Pacific Wikimedia Commons

"These will be challenging conversations and we want to ensure we don't undertake them until we have more clarity. I appreciate the current lack of detail allows rumour and speculation to grow and I'm very sorry for this."

One of the hardest-hit airlines

The contents of the memo referenced the job losses caused by the company's previous restructurings, and a lower-cost pilot contract, suggesting one approach the airline might take in talks.

Some pilots who previously switched to the cheaper contract took an approximate 50-60 percent cut to total pay, which includes housing and other allowances. According to the company's 2019 annual report, it employs more than 34,200 people, including 27,342 at Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon, said the SCMP newspaper.

The group operates 236 aircraft to 119 destinations in 35 countries. Two previous significant restructurings in 1998 and 2017-18 were cited in the memo. Several hundred people were laid off in each of those years. Cathay Pacific has been one of the airlines hardest hit by the pandemic, which has caused the grounding of most of its aircraft and a near-total collapse in demand for air travel.