Cathay Pacific has cut staff and shut a subsidiary. Photo: iStock

Cathay Pacific announced a HK$39 billion (US$5 billion) government-led bailout plan on Tuesday as it battles a crippling downturn caused by the coronavirus.

Like many airlines hammered by the crisis, the Hong Kong carrier has seen passenger numbers all but evaporate in recent months leaving most of its fleet sitting on the tarmac and the company hemorrhaging cash.

The firm was already under pressure, after taking a hit from the impact of months of sometimes violent protests in Hong Kong last year that saw passenger numbers plunge.

On Tuesday the airline announced a sweeping proposal to inject liquidity and keep it afloat with the help of Hong Kong’s government.

“Cathay Pacific has explored available options and believes that a recapitalization is required to ensure it has sufficient liquidity to weather this current crisis,” Cathay said in a statement to the city’s stock exchange.

The bulk of the new capital will come from new shares issued to Aviation 2020, a company owned by the Hong Kong government, as well as a HK$7.8 billion bridge loan from the government.

Under the proposal, it will raise about HK$11.7 billion in a rights issue on the basis of seven rights shares for every 11 existing shares held, while preference shares for the government would raise HK$19.5 billion and warrants would garner HK$1.95 billion, subject to adjustment.

The South China Morning Post reported that it is the first time Hong Kong’s government has directly injected money into a private company.

Share trading in Cathay Pacific – and its two biggest shareholders Air China and Swire – was suspended in Hong Kong on Tuesday morning ahead of the announcement. They will resume trading on Wednesday, Cathay said.

Swire, a Hong Kong and British conglomerate with colonial-era roots, has a 45% stake in Cathay, while Air China owns 30%.

Hong Kong’s government will hold a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, followed by Cathay.

In its statement, Cathay said it also plans to implement a further round of executive pay cuts and a second voluntary unpaid leave initiative for employees.

Before the pandemic struck Cathay was one of Asia’s largest international airlines and the fifth largest air cargo carrier globally.

The virus has caused a collapse in passengers and while its cargo business has kept going, Cathay has no domestic demand to fall back on, unlike many other big airlines. 

It lost $580 million in the first four months of the year. 

Cathay also found itself punished by Beijing last year when some of its 33,000 employees expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.