Hong Kong (AFP) – Cathay Pacific announced Wednesday its chairman John Slosar is stepping down to retire, the latest high-profile executive to leave the troubled airline after it drew Beijing’s ire over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The flagship carrier has had a torrid few weeks after Chinese state media and authorities blasted the company because some of its 27,000 employees had taken part in — or were sympathetic to — anti-government protests currently rocking Hong Kong.
In a statement posted on the Hong Kong stock exchange, Cathay said Slosar, 63, had stepped down and will be replaced as chairman by Patrick Healy, a veteran from the Swire Group conglomerate, the airline’s majority shareholder.
“His resignation is due to his retirement,” the statement said, adding that the changes would take effect from November 6 at the conclusion of the company’s board meeting.
Slosar’s departure ends a nearly four decade career with Swire and Cathay and caps a tumultuous month of sudden management changes at the airline as it tries to claw its way out of Beijing’s bad books.
In August, CEO Rupert Hogg and another senior executive stepped down after China’s aviation regulator banned airline staff who had supported the demonstrations from working on flights through its airspace and after state media encouraged a boycott in the crucial mainland market.
– Sudden u-turn –
Cathay’s sin was to be perceived as being sympathetic to protesters, especially after some flight attendants and pilots joined a city-wide strike and protests.
In July, Slosar had said he would not want to tell his tens of thousands of employees what to think or which political views to hold.
But China’s public castigation — and the threat of being blacklisted from the vital mainland market — led to a sudden u-turn by the airline.
Executives issued a series of statements supporting Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders, fired at least four staff and ordered employees not to take part in any strikes or illegal protests.
A flight attendant who was a union organiser also said she was dismissed without explanation.
Staff inside Cathay have since told AFP they believe a witchhunt is underway, with employees frantically deleting social media posts and gutting their friends lists fearing disciplinary action if they are found to have any links with the protests.
Cathay’s statement on Wednesday included a short quote from Slosar thanking his colleagues and expressing confidence in his successor — but there was no reference to the recent political woes faced by the airline.
That contrasted with Hogg’s resignation last month where he said he was stepping down “to take responsibility as a leader of the Company in view of recent events”.
Analysts say the political purge inside Cathay may halt further sanctioning by China.
But by toeing Beijing’s line, critics say Cathay has trashed its reputation as a totemic Hong Kong company, which has grown over 72 years in parallel with the city’s status as a gateway to Asia.
Since Cathay’s woes with Beijing, major businesses with interests in the mainland have swiftly moved to issue statements condemning protesters and supporting the crackdown by Hong Kong’s police.