BEIJING/HONG KONG: Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said it had suspended with immediate effect on Tuesday (Aug 13) a second officer operating flight CX216 for misuse of company information and had also commenced internal disciplinary proceedings.
The flight was on Monday, it said in an emailed statement to Reuters.
The airline did not provide further details, but the Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, reported earlier on Tuesday that an anonymous message was posted online encouraging protesters to keep protesting at the Hong Kong airport and was accompanied by a picture of a cockpit.
The picture, which was also carried by other Chinese media, showed a cockpit screen that belonged to flight CX216, which was flying out of Manchester to Hong Kong.
Cathay got caught in the tussle between Beijing and anti-government groups in the Asian financial hub on Friday after China's civil aviation regulator demanded the airline suspend personnel who engaged in or supported illegal protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights into its airspace.
The airline over the weekend moved to comply with the demand from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), suspending a pilot arrested during anti-government protests in Hong Kong and firing two airport employees citing misconduct.
The airline also fired two ground staff and sent out a warning email to its employees.
"We condemn all illegal activities and violent behaviour, which seriously undermine the fundamental principle of 'One Country, Two Systems' as enshrined in the Basic Law," Swire Pacific Ltd said in a statement.
Cathay's manager said it supported the Hong Kong government, CEO and police in their efforts to restore law and order.
Shares in Cathay fell to a 10-year-low on Monday and tumbled lower still on Tuesday. It was hit by concerns that Beijing could slap further sanctions on the airline, causing more damage to its brand.
The protests began in opposition to a Bill allowing extraditions to the mainland for trial in Communist-controlled courts, but have widened to highlight other grievances.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the "one country, two systems" arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.
Swire Pacific's comments supporting Beijing come a day after China's aviation regulator said its deputy director had met with Swire Pacific Chairman Merlin Swire.
While Swire Pacific declined to say what was discussed, its statement on Tuesday underscores the political pressure both it and Cathay are facing.
READ: Protesters block departure hall at Hong Kong airport day after rally led to mass flight cancellations
Cathay, which was forced to cancel hundreds of flights after Hong Kong's airport authority took an unprecedented step of closing the airport on Monday, has warned of further flight disruptions at short notice.
It is also encouraging customers to avoid non-essential travel from Hong Kong on Tuesday and Wednesday as protesters plan more anti-government rallies at the airport. The airport authority suspended flight check-ins late on Tuesday.
Analysts and employees said there were fears that Beijing could take further action that could hit the airline, such as time-consuming plane checks at airports or even the closure of Chinese airspace and airports to Cathay flights.
The investment banking arm of China's biggest lender, ICBC, has slapped a "strong sell" rating on Cathay and cut its target price to HK$6, below its current price of HK$9.55.
"We believe recent CAAC safety alert, together with management's poor crisis management, will cause irreversible damage to Cathay Pacific's brand perception as a premium quality carrier," it said in a note, referring to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Some Cathay employees expressed concerns over what the firm's position could mean for them. "I think there is an underlying concern now about what this does to Cathay," one of the airline's pilots said of the regulatory scrutiny.
"This could be a storm in a teacup and we'll be back to making lots of money next month. Or this could be the collapse of the airline. No one really knows," the pilot told Reuters.
Another employee said she was concerned about what it could mean for staff liberties.
"I am very worried about the ban on flight attendants' freedom," a cabin crew member, who declined to be named, told Reuters outside Cathay's headquarters on Tuesday.
"I am a bit worried about if I can go to mainland China safely because I protested before, even though it's a legal march," said Andy, a Cathay head office employee who declined to provide his last name. "But who knows?"