Public protests work on many levels. They can raise awareness to issues and motivate locals to engage more. For the past 10 weeks the anti-ELAB protests in Hong Kong have mostly focused on those angles. Yes, there has been some interruption to commerce as the MTR operations were disrupted or the harbor tunnel was blocked. But those were limited duration events, with limited impact magnitude.
In the past few days, however, things changed dramatically. Chinese authorities issued a stern warning to hometown airline Cathay Pacific regarding crewmembers’ participation in the protests. The potential for significant disruption to the carrier’s operations (though only a handful of crewmembers are directly affected so far) took a toll on the airline’s share price, dropping it to 10-year lows.
There are many ways to disrupt an economy, but affecting aviation will always raise the profile of an effort significantly.
Protesters also took a new tack, raising the profile of their cause. For two consecutive days they’ve filled the airport arrival and departure halls, disrupting operations such that authorities were forced to cancel hundreds of flights each day.
For its part, both the airline and its owner, Swire Pacific, issued statements supporting the Hong Kong government and the rule of law. The organizations express “deep concern” and “condemn all illegal activity and violent behavior.” The carrier also notes that it will comply with the demands of Chinese regulators with respect to crew rosters and protest participation.
What remains unclear, however, is just how long the authorities, either from Hong Kong or the Mainland, will allow the disruption of aviation to continue. Reports had significant massing of troops on the mainland side earlier in the week, assembling for exercises in Shenzen. It is hard to see that as much of a coincidence given the circumstances.
Travel Concerns, travel waivers
Over the weekend some police officers posed as protesters, blurring the lines of legitimate action. As a result, the protestors are increasingly skeptical, identifying reporters and others from the mainland as police or spies.
Travel to Hong Kong is shifting from occasional and isolated inconvenience to a risky proposition for some groups. Fortunately, some airlines are starting to take these risks more seriously and are offering passengers some flexibility in their travel plans. Both United Airlines, American Airlines and British Airways are among the carriers are now offering travel waivers for passengers booked to fly through 15 August, with a limited time window for rescheduling their trips. Lufthansa and Qantas note that its passengers who cannot pass through immigration and security due to the services being closed at the airport will be rebooked without charge, though more proactive changes are not permitted.