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Like other LCCs, HK Express relies on the Airbus A320neo for a
large part of its fleet. The planes are being acquired to be part of the
airline’s long-term fleet expansion and renewal plans. When the first
A320neo was delivered in December 2016, HK Express became the
first East Asian airline to fly the aircraft and the first in the world to
operate it in the 188-seat configuration. It was one of the ways for
the airline to mitigate fluctuating fuel prices and Cowen revealed the
airline saw a reduction of 20 percent or more in terms of fuel burn
on some routes. However, their fleet expansion with the A320neo
hit a snag when the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engines
suffered reliability issues worldwide.
Cowen said before he was fired that the airline was supposed
to have received two additional A320neos before the summer, but
declined to accept them, resulting in a shortage
of aircraft that affected the airline’s on-time
performance. The airline is supposed to receive
at least one additional A320neo before the end
of the year. Also affecting the airline’s expan-
sion plans is the lack of available slots at Hong
Kong International Airport, meaning any new
aircraft acquisitions will likely be used to retire
older aircraft. The lack of slots is affecting the
airline’s plans to offer more destinations as well,
“ We would love to fly to at least 20 more destinations but we
simply can’t get slots and slot timing. We would have to moderate
and adjust our fleet plans to deal with the infrastructural constraints,”
Cowen said at the time of the interview.
Hong Kong authorities have since embarked on the so-called “3rd
Runway System” (3RS) project to increase the capacity and traffic
flow of the airport. Reclamation work has begun and will see 650
hectares of land created, housing a new passenger concourse with
57 parking slots and a third 3,800m runway. The project will cost an
estimated US$18 billion and should increase hourly movements from
68 to 102 flights once the project is complete by 2030.
As for Cowen’s sacking, he likely is a victim of the airline’s success
and inability to handle the increase in demand. The surge in pas-
senger numbers, demand, and thinning numbers of staff and assets
proved to be too much for the airline during the week-long Chinese
Golden Week holidays. HK Express had to cancel 18 flights over a
period from 1 October to 8 October to popular destinations in Osaka,
Nagoya and Seoul.
Reports showed that three key safety trainers and a training
manager left the company in August and as a result, safety licences
for around 700 cabin crew and pilots lapsed. The lack of manpower
and crew resulted in the cancellation of flights that affected 2,070
passengers. Five more flights were scrapped later in the week.
Cowen was removed from the post following the saga. He was
replaced by Zhong Guosong, who was previously the executive vice
president of the airline. HK Express said in a statement that the “first
area of focus is working on understanding what has transpired in the
airline recently, in order to implement any necessary improvements
to ensure HK Express continues to serve the Hong Kong public in
its unique role as the sole low-cost carrier.”
Safety training and assessment has resumed after applying stop-
gap contingency plans, including hiring trainers and extending crew
training periods from 12 to 13 months.
The statement also pointed out that the new chief “will also liaise
closely with the relevant local authorities, including the (Civil Avia-
tion Department) to establish an efficient communications channel
and effective implementation mechanism between the two parties
to ensure smoother operations in the future.”
Attempts to reach Cowen after his dismissal were unsuccessful.
...[the] first area of focus is working on understanding
what has transpired in the airline recently, in order to
implement any necessary improvements to ensure HK
Express continues to serve the Hong Kong public in its
unique role as the sole low-cost carrier.
◀ HK Express is Hong Kong’s only domestic LCC and is responsible
for 40 percent of HKIA’s total low-cost airline frequency.
▶ Andrew Cowen, former CEO of HK Express.
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