Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. said it would close its Hong Kong office and end flights to and from London Heathrow Airport, a sign of the obstacles the Chinese city faces in trying to restore its reputation as an aviation hub.
Virgin, which has operated in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years, said complications from the closure of Russian airspace contributed to the decision to end the service. The airline previously said it would resume flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong in March 2023 after stopping in December 2021.
The announcement highlights the challenges Hong Kong faces as it tries to reconnect with the world after years of strict zero-COVID status. border policy that caused the collapse of its air passenger traffic. Last month, the city removed a long-standing hotel quarantine requirement for arrivals, but there are still many restrictions and testing requirements for arriving travelers, and travel has yet to increase significantly.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has added to disruptions for airlines around the world. Many Western countries have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft in recent months, prompting retaliatory measures by Russia and closing a key corridor for many long-haul flights, especially between Europe and Asia.
At a press conference in Doha last month, Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Union, said Hong Kong had lost its status as a global aviation hub because of China’s no-covid policy and said other hubs had benefited from the damage caused to the city. Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was an important hub for passengers travelling to and from Asia, especially those travelling between mainland China and the West. In July, Hong Kong International Airport opened its long-awaited third runway, the most expensive infrastructure project at the time of approval since the city was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
Traffic collapsed due to border restrictions. Hong Kong International Airport handled 2.2 million passengers in the 12 months to August, more than double a year earlier but well below the 7.8 million passengers handled in the same period in 2019, according to official statistics.
While other places in Asia, such as Singapore, have opened borders and recovered this year, Hong Kong has largely maintained its restrictions in line with mainland China’s stricter anti-coronavirus measures.
The city’s COVID restrictions included a requirement for hotel quarantine for arriving travellers for more than 21 days, one of the longest in the world. Authorities reduced the quarantine requirement to three days in the summer before lifting it last month.