The founder of regional airline Cathay Dragon has expressed sorrow over its abrupt closure by its struggling parent company but also spoke of pride in creating a Hong Kong brand.
Chao Kuang-piu, aged 101, recounted the “remarkable” journey of the carrier, from its humble origins 35 years ago with just one plane, to forging its reputation with a Cantonese-speaking crew and hot meals for passengers, through the rough and tumble of the city’s handover in 1997.
Cathay Pacific closed the airline last week as part of a restructuring aimed at slimming down operations to better survive the collapse of air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. It axed 5,300 Hong Kong jobs. Dragon staff bore the brunt of the cuts with 2,000 cabin crew and 550 pilots laid off.
“[I] hope Cathay Dragon’s entrepreneurial spirit will continue to encourage Hongkongers to overcome tough times during the pandemic and forge a way forward,” Chao said on Thursday.
With the closure of Dragon, residents lost a local icon and success story that began in May 1985 when textile magnate Chao came together with other investors, including shipping tycoon Pao Yue-kong, to launch what was first known as Dragonair.
The airline grew to become a serious challenger to Cathay Pacific, with both fighting in court for flying rights to and from mainland China. In 1990, Cathay, together with Citic Pacific and Swire Group, bought 89 per cent of Dragonair.
Cathay took it over in 2006 for HK$8.22 billion (US$1.06 billion in today’s currency) and in 2016 renamed it Cathay Dragon, ditching its iconic red dragon logo – widely recognised on the mainland – with a wing logo, bringing it in line with the parent company’s visual style.
Chao, who has described himself as loving the nation and the city, said he was motivated by a strong sense of patriotism when he started the company at a time when China and Britain were in the midst of talks over Hong Kong and the city’s handover from its colonial master was approaching.“In the 35 years since, Cathay Dragon went from strength to strength and became an airline most beloved by Hongkongers and welcomed by foreigners,” he said.
Chao said his company became known for its flight attendants who spoke the local language and served hot meals in the air. The company played a key role in Hong Kong’s transformation into an international aviation hub, its integration with the mainland and the implementation of the “one country, two systems” principle, which confers a high degree of autonomy on the city.
In its early years, the carrier was mocked as “present in the sky, absent on the ground” for having just one plane. But the number eventually grew to 48 planes flying to 51 destinations.
The extraordinary success of the home-grown airline was now part of the city’s collective memory, Chao said.