HONG KONG - Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways reported on Wednesday a HK$9.79 billion ($1.25 billion) profit for 2023, its first annual profit since 2019, and said it plans to expand its workforce by around 20%, or 5,000 people, this year.

Cathay is embarking on a massive recruitment drive as it recovers from the impact of COVID-19 which resulted in heavy losses for Hong Kong's flagship airline. It posted a loss of HK$6.6 billion in 2022.

Its shares were up 1.6% ahead of the earnings announcement, their highest level since Aug. 15.

Cathay said it aims to reach 80% of its pre-pandemic passenger flights within the second quarter of this year.

The carrier has restored capacity more slowly than its closest rival, Singapore Airlines, because it faced tighter quarantine rules for longer, and needed to hire more staff to bring back services.

Cathay Pacific is a full service passenger and cargo airline, with two subsidiaries: low cost carrier HK Express and cargo carrier Air Hong Kong.

($1 = 7.8243 Hong Kong dollars)

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Seoul; Additional reporting by Hong Kong Newsroom; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)