On the screens in the Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) at Cathay Pacific’s headquarters there is a green, red and purple smear. Typhoon Hato is on the way, heading straight across the South China Sea for Hong Kong.
The people monitoring the screens have about 24 hours to prepare.
Mark Hoey, general manager operations, chairs the first meeting of the IOC. In attendance: airport teams, crew rostering, engineering, flight operations, social media and communications.
The verdict is unanimous. No Cathay Pacific flights will take off from or land at Hong Kong between 7am and 5pm the following day.
It’s typhoon season, but Hong Kong rarely gets a big hit. Its citizens are used to false alarms. Hoey’s team has just made a very disruptive and expensive call.
‘It would be’, he says, ‘except we don’t make a decision based on any one weather forecast. We look at a variety of apps and programmes including the US Navy and the Hong Kong government among others. Most predictions have Hato going just to the south of Hong Kong and two just to the north. To me that means we have no choice but to suspend operations.’
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There is no statutory reason for Cathay Pacific to stop flying in typhoons, and it does fly if it’s safe to. But when the T8 signal is raised, Hong Kong’s citizens are advised to go home and public transport starts winding down. At T10 people aren’t allowed to work outside at the airport and even the Airport Express trains stop. Hoey adds: ‘We can operate in a T8 perfectly well if the wind is in the right direction and within our limits. But this looks like a major event.’
Already news of tomorrow’s cancelled flights has been being posted online, and the social media team is spreading news of a ticket waiver (meaning customers can rebook without charge).
It’s still and swelteringly hot outside. But there are already restrictions on aircraft movements. With only 20 take-offs and landings an hour allowed, the emphasis is on getting long haul flights home to Hong Kong before the worst of the storm hits. But what about the night departures from Europe? They need to be held until Hato has passed through at some point in the afternoon – and everyone would love to know what point that will be.
‘We’re not going to cancel these flights,’ says Hoey. ‘If they don’t come in, we won’t have any aircraft to depart.’
Night departures mean noise curfews. Hoey’s line operations teams are ringing airport managers around the world trying to get slots for later departures or for special dispensation to take off after the curfew.
Even chief executives are not exempt from disruption. Rupert Hogg, on his way back from France, is on a flight that will be held at the airport for nine hours.
Mark Hoey and his team are back in the IOC. ‘It’s much as we left it,’ he says, looking out of the window. Hot. Still. But yesterday’s decision was the right one. Winds even stronger than originally forecast are on the way: 160 kilometres per hour and more.
The storm is scheduled to hit at noon, and by afternoon the winds will change to the southeast. Bad news: crosswinds and turbulence will funnel down from the mountains of Lantau Island and escape into the South China Sea via the airfield.
Hoey is fretting that it would have been possible to get another hour’s worth of flights in. Line ops manager James Toye is more phlegmatic. ‘That’s a very hard call to make 18 hours out,’ he says. ‘I think this is pretty good.’
All eyes are on the screens tracking the position of the typhoon and the last four aircraft trying to get in ahead of it.
Frankfurt is adamant about the noise curfew. That means a day of anxiety in Hong Kong: the flight is due to arrive at 1530 – an hour and a half earlier than the time Hoey set for recommencing operations. But it has plenty of fuel if it needs to hold and/or divert if Hato’s tail is swishing too ferociously. Hoey says: ‘It will be in the lap of the gods where the winds and rain bands will be at that point.’
The flight from Germany lands safely: not Frankfurt, but the CX376 from Düsseldorf, the last Cathay Pacific flight allowed in before Hato’s inevitable arrival.
‘Now it’s boring,’ says Hoey. ‘All operations have ceased and we just need to start worrying about tonight’s organised chaos – and the Frankfurt flight.’
It’s far from boring outside. The T10 signal is hoisted, for the first time since 2012. Fuelling teams are weighing down parked aircraft with tonnes of fuel. Staff who work outside at the airport have to go indoors – which is where the population of Hong Kong is, taping up their windows and readying their mops and buckets.
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The IOC meets. Conditions at the airport are terrible. Some 1,200 passengers, most of whom cannot connect to other flights, are in for a long and noisy day.
Frankfurt still occupies everyone’s thoughts. Hoey says: ‘If we lose it to a diversion, it’s a long haul aircraft we need for tonight, so we have to work out how to get it back without compromising the plan too much. Then it’s a jigsaw.
‘All the unintended delays like having to load and cater planes in atrocious conditions are yet to come.’
A KLM Boeing 747 lands at the airport, more or less in the eye of the storm. The winds are parallel to the runway. They’re too strong for an Ethiopian Airlines flight, which cancels its approach and diverts. Over the peaks of Lantau, the wind speed hits 172 kilometres per hour.
T10 becomes T8. The IOC meets once more. Hoey reports that ‘we’re almost within operating limits’. The CX288 from Frankfurt is less than an hour away. The captain will pass on his eagerly awaited view of the approach to the IOC so that they can relay this to the other aircraft following it in.
It’s now neck and neck between CX288 and an ANA flight as to which will test Hong Kong’s runways first.
CX288 lands first. The flight deck reports crosswinds of about 20 knots (37 kilometres an hour) – testing, but within limits. The news is passed on and the heavily amended flying programme restarts.
The final IOC meeting of the day. There is a palpable sense of relief. Hoey thanks staff and crew who have battled through horrendous conditions to get to where they needed to be.
He sums up: ‘We’re in a good position to get back to normal tomorrow.’ At Hong Kong International Airport there have been hundreds of cancellations, but few diversions for Cathay flights. In the city, residents are emerging to scenes of fallen trees and flooded streets. Here in the IOC, the screens are clear once again.