Cathay Pacific Airways will let flight attendants wear surgical masks on all routes, amid the spread of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus.
The change of policy comes after workers accused the airline of violating their basic human rights by only allowing the face coverings on some routes, and warned of the "catastrophic" effects of waiting until a staff member fell ill to take action.
Only crew on flights to mainland China, where nine people have been killed by the virus, were previously allowed to wear the face coverings. But on Wednesday, with cases reported in Taiwan, Japan and Thailand, the airline announced it had extended that to all flights.
China's National Health Commission announced on Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak - which began in the mainland city of Wuhan, Hubei province - had already killed nine people and infected about 460 others across the country. All of the deaths were in central Hubei.
On Wednesday night, after Cathay's announcement, Hong Kong got its first confirmed case.
The airline said in a statement on Wednesday: "Due to the evolving information from health authorities, we will allow crew members and frontline airport employees to wear surgical face masks when on duty at their discretion.
"We are monitoring the situation closely and will continue to coordinate with the health authorities in Hong Kong and in all the ports to which we operate flights."
The airline added that, as required by Hong Kong health authorities, it would distribute health declaration forms and provide passengers travelling from Wuhan to Hong Kong with face masks and antiseptic wipes.
Earlier this month, Cathay Pacific said it would only let staff on Wuhan flights wear masks. That was extended to all mainland flights on Tuesday, before Wednesday's further extension.
The union had demanded that the airline let all staff wear face masks since about two weeks ago.
On Tuesday, it said it would be "too late and too painful" for management to let them do so only after employees had been infected, adding the outcome by then could be "catastrophic".
Other flight attendants have stressed it is their basic human right to wear a mask to work.
Hours before the airline's latest announcement, the union urged all flight attendants to raise their concerns directly to the company by emailing their managers.
Amber Suen, the union's internal vice-chairwoman, said on Wednesday: "We are pleased to hear the company's decision. A lot of members actually wrote to the company directly to raise their concerns. We appreciate the company listening to the employees and finally making this decision."
Another flight attendant, who asked not to be named, hoped that if there were a similar outbreak in the future, the airline would not take so long to grant the permission.
"This should become a long-standing policy, that whenever there is such an outbreak, staff should be allowed to wear masks," the worker said.
Cathay also announced that any customers who wanted to rebook, reroute or refund tickets to or from Wuhan between January 21 and March 31, issued on or before Tuesday, would have the extra fee waived.
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