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Getting Fly Ready in a pandemic

Lucy Mak, Cathay’s Head of Global Airports, reveals how a determination to help customers navigate tricky travel restrictions led to the launch of the new Fly Ready portal.

Serving our customers and running our airline has taken on many new faces throughout the pandemic. For Lucy Mak, Head of Global Airports, it meant a whole variety of things outside her typical job description - from hunting down laboratory accreditations, to making hotel bookings, to creating a whole new system to help passengers check in.

The travel restrictions that came into force during the pandemic were strict, confusing and subject to constant change. This caused many issues for customers and airport colleagues alike – with some passengers being caught out and denied travel.

“The Hong Kong Port Health Authority restrictions had particularly specific requirements for the data and the wording,” explained Mak. “For example, the name of the passenger on the test report and travel documents had to be an exact match. If a Hong Kong person added their English name to one but not the other, it would not be accepted as a valid test report.

“Another example was the requirement to have the sample collection time stated: not when the test was taken, but when the sample was collected. Or proof that the laboratory is ISO15189 accredited: but it wasn’t enough for the laboratory to state that themselves, they needed separate documentary proof” explained Mak. “You can get a sense of how difficult it was for customers as well as the airport teams to check all these documents.”

In the early days, Mak and her Live Support teams leapt into action to help customers in every way possible - from trawling the internet to find all information available to calling labs for the correct data - but it quickly became apparent that there was a limit to what could be done at the check-in counter.

“I remember one case of a family from Sydney who had their flight cancelled and rebooked to the day before - but their quarantine hotel couldn’t accommodate them and they were panicking. We spent all morning on the phone to the hotel and eventually managed to negotiate an extra night for them on their original booking.”

That’s why the team spent two months rapidly developing Fly Ready: a new portal that allowed customers to upload their documents in advance for pre-verification, so Cathay Pacific could confirm they had everything in order and alert them to any issues.

It offered peace of mind and improved the airport experience, allowing passengers to skip lengthy check-in queues and sail through dedicated Fly Ready lanes. And just as importantly, it helped to ensure that Cathay Pacific was in compliance with all the new rules and regulations – because a breach could have had serious consequences.

“If we breached the regulations in a non-compliance case, there were severe problems: the route could’ve been suspended and fines could’ve been imposed of around HK$50,000 per case. Individuals could also have been imprisoned for six months. So that was quite a heavy responsibility in making every single decision”, said Mak.

Launching Fly Ready successfully eased the pressure on customers and airport colleagues, with up to half of all inbound passengers making use of the service and 10,000 cases processed. But it also placed a huge burden on Mak and her three-person Global Airport and Management Support team.

For the first nine months, these four individuals were solely responsible for handling the many cases coming through the Fly Ready portal. This meant being on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, handling an influx of sensitive passenger data to help everyone abide by frequently changing and complex new travel restrictions.

“I can describe those first 9-10 months as hell”, laughs Mak, who suddenly found herself becoming an expert on inspecting laboratory regulations.

She also had to deal with a discussion with the police, regarding 90 suspected cases of non-compliance. Thankfully, the team was able to prove due diligence - and Fly Ready became a handy tool in resolving suspected cases - with not a single case of non-compliance slipping through the net.

“Knowing what a huge problem it would be for the company if there was even one case of non-compliance really helped to drive me and keep up a can-do spirit”, said Mak. "And I want to say thank you to my team for their hard work all the way”.

The team seconded 20 new colleagues to help process the Fly Ready cases, providing them with four months of extensive training beforehand.

“Our attitude is that it’s easy just to say no and deny a customer boarding. It’s much harder to try and help - but we really wanted to go the extra mile,’ said Mak. “Honestly, at the end of the day if you can help the customer, it’s just so satisfying.”

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