Imagine a circle with Hong Kong at the centre and the full circumference marked by a distance five hours flying time away. Within that circle you would find not only one of the world's most economically vibrant regions but also, by rough estimates, 50 percent of the world's population. That explains why, despite the well-publicised difficulties of the last two years, major airlines are upbeat about prospects for 2004 and sustained long-term growth beyond.
For carriers like Cathay Pacific Airways, Dragonair and United Airlines with a particularly strong presence in Hong Kong, the upturn in business confidence is shown in plans for new routes and increased recruitment over the coming months. Referring to the latest forecasts for world air traffic demand, Albert Wong, Cathay's personnel manager (strategy and relations development) points out that worldwide demand this year is predicted to show a six percent increase but for the Asia Pacific region a figure closer to eight percent is expected.
"There was a quicker recovery than expected after SARS," explains Mr Wong. "Passenger numbers had been at scary levels but from July onwards traffic picked up quickly and, by September, was almost back to normal levels." Cathay's focus for 2004 will be to build up its frequency and network in China. New routes to Shanghai and Xiamen are being considered and further destinations and flights will be added depending on operational demand. "The aim is to expand Hong Kong as a hub," adds Mr Wong. "It can become a centre for covering Asia and a gateway for routeing international passengers to China on one airline." The knock-on benefits for retailers, restaurants, hotels and other tourist-related businesses are easy to anticipate.
A similar, generally positive outlook is seen by Dragonair. According to Laura Crampton, assistant general manager, corporate communications, they will, "continue to expand and explore opportunities in the region". Plans have recently been announced to launch a new service to Tokyo in early April with an initial frequency of five flights a week as the latest step in expanding their regional presence.
United Airlines, which has over 700 staff in Hong Kong, is also confident. Having suffered more than most in the downturn of 2002, they report bookings for the coming months look as good as for a normal year. Human resources manager, Winnie Chui, confirms, "From around October last year, there were extremely good load factors and most flights were leaving full. All flights in the Asia region had resumed by then and the 28 weekly flights from Hong Kong to all four destinations Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo and Singapore were back in operation." United will complete a corporate restructuring within the second quarter and monitor overall demand before introducing any extra flights in Hong Kong.
In the meantime, recruitment for individual posts will continue. They have been taking on reservations agents, trainers and managers who attend United's regional training centre in Hong Kong and receive both classroom and on-the-job experience during a six-week induction programme. Ms Chui uses structural, competency-based interview questions to help select people who possess a customer-oriented personality. She says: "Fresh graduates and individuals with customer service experience get equal consideration but the right mentality is the most important thing."
Ms Crampton confirms that Dragonair also intends to hire new talent, "To match its expansion needs, Dragonair plans to recruit high-calibre candidates to fill more than 300 new positions in the coming year." These include positions in different parts of the airline's operations but the majority will be cabin and cockpit crew.
At Cathay Pacific, Mr Wong will review good-quality applications that came in before SARS as a first step to hiring around 400 new cabin crew and 150 customer service officers in four to five batches this year."