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Cathay Pacific's new chief Lam to spearhead COVID recovery, two-brand plan

COVID-19 pandemic in Hong Kong

By Jamie Freed

(Reuters) -Long-serving executive Ronald Lam will take over as chief executive of Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd from Jan. 1, the airline said on Wednesday, as it scrambles to rebuild capacity after the coronavirus pandemic.

Now that the Asian financial hub has scrapped onerous hotel quarantine rules, the airline is looking to build up passenger numbers. Those were down 89% in September from the corresponding month in 2019, when anti-government protests had shrunk traffic. Lam will lead Cathay through its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the launch of a third runway in Hong Kong, as well as overseeing a dual-brand strategy with low-cost carrier HK Express, Chairman Patrick Healy said in a statement. Still, Cathay has said it expects to reach a third of pre-pandemic passenger capacity by year-end, well below a target of 81% set by rival Singapore Airlines Ltd.

Cathay, which plans to hire 4,000 more staff over the next 18 to 24 months as travel rebounds, has said adding more flights is a priority but time will be required to train crew and reactivate aircraft.

Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the pilots' union, said he hoped Lam's appointment was an opportunity for change at the airline after it cut thousands of jobs during the pandemic and permanently reduced the pay of remaining crew.

"Cathay has a mountain to climb to replace the staff, particularly pilots, that have left and continue to leave," he said. Lam, 50, joined Cathay in 1996, and was previously its chief customer and commercial officer. Analysts saw him as the most likely successor to current boss Augustus Tang, at an airline where the chief executive's tenure usually runs three years. The two men took the top jobs in August 2019, after the resignation of then chief executive Rupert Hogg and Paul Loo, chief customer and commercial officer, amid mounting Chinese regulatory scrutiny of employees' involvement in the protests. Tang, 64, was previously the chief executive of Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company, which like Cathay is managed by Swire Pacific Ltd, and had been close to retirement before stepping in, industry sources have said. Cathay's new chief customer and commercial officer is Lavinia Lau, 52, who moves from the role of director of customer travel, into a strong position to become its first female chief executive.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Clarence Fernandez)