Hong Kong union wants investigation after HK Express pulls 2 blind passengers from flight
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Hong Kong union wants investigation after HK Express pulls 2 blind passengers from flight

HK Express apologised to the passengers but defended the decision made by their crew as being “entirely based on safety considerations”. (Photo: South China Morning Post)
HK Express apologised to the passengers but defended the decision made by their crew as being “entirely based on safety considerations”. (Photo: South China Morning Post)

HONG KONG: A Hong Kong union for the blind has called on Cathay Pacific Airways' budget carrier to investigate an incident involving two visually impaired passengers being forcibly removed from a flight in late May, an accusation the company has denied.

The Hong Kong Blind Union at a press briefing on Sunday urged HK Express to thoroughly investigate the incident and hold to account the crew members who made the "insulting and offensive" move.

The airline apologised to the passengers for the "inconvenience caused", but defended the decision made by their crew as being "entirely based on safety considerations".

The incident happened at around 2.55pm (1.55pm Thailand time) on May 22, when Andy Chui Man-chun, 34, and John Li Chun-yin, 27, boarded a flight to Tokyo operated by HK Express.

They had notified the airline about their disability in advance and earlier gone through check-in smoothly. They were escorted to the gate and briefed on safety procedures by crew members.

However, just a few minutes before the departure time, a crew member asked if they were accompanied by parents and requested them to get off the flight, citing "safety reasons".

"We were told we couldn't take the flight because we do not meet the safety standards," Chui said. "The crew member told us the order had been given by the pilot."

Confused by the request, the pair said they tried to reason with the crew member, but he pulled Li's arm and dragged him off the plane, forcing Chui to follow.

Both Li and Chui recalled that many other passengers were also puzzled by the order, and asked why visually impaired people were not permitted on a regular flight.

"We felt insulted and embarrassed, they were treating us as if we were criminals," Chui said, adding they were asked to buy tickets for another flight that was "operated by any other airline".

They subsequently contacted the union, which called the Civil Aviation Department for support.

Following the department's intervention, the pair boarded another HK Express flight to Tokyo at around 11pm.

They were also given four meal vouchers of HK$60 (280 baht) each, which stated "protection from UO652" as the reason of issuance. UO652 is the HK Express flight number to Tokyo.

When Chui and Lui subsequently sent emails and made phone calls to the airline to seek further explanation, they were told the company could neither identify the person who removed them from the flight, nor the one who gave the order.

The explanations provided by the company were also "inconsistent", they said, with one customer service representative telling them they had been denied their seat on the original flight due to "overbooking".

After the union invited the media to a press briefing, HK Express sent an email on Saturday saying the pair had been removed because the ground and cabin crew "could not reach a consensus" and had to report their case to the management for further assessment.

The airline also issued an apology and promised to compensate the two travellers. It remains unconfirmed whether HK Express' email was a response to the press briefing.

Billy Wong Chun-hang, president of the union, said this is the second complaint they had received in relation to the budget airline.

The first was received last year when a visually impaired customer was asked to prove her disability and travel with an adult who could take care of her physical and mental needs. The company later apologised and provided the necessary service she requested to escort her for boarding, after intervention by the union.

"We never face such issues with other airlines, only HK Express. We know the accessibility guidelines issued by the Civil Aviation Department are not legally-binding, but the company should conduct a thorough investigation and give a full account of the incident open," Wong said.

"We also request that the department step up its monitoring efforts to ensure the airline has policies that properly respect the rights and needs of disabled people."

In a reply to the South China Morning Post, HK Express' commercial director Kee Keat Ong denied the airline had forcibly removed the two passengers.

"The decision made by the aircrew was entirely based on safety considerations, and the on-duty staff accompanied the two passengers as they left the cabin. We sincerely apologise for the delay and inconvenience caused to the two passengers."

He added that the claim of "overbooking" was a "misunderstanding", that the company did not suggest they travel on another airline at their own expense but had actively arranged to take another flight the same day.

The company said the ground employees and aircrew followed "standard safety procedures" in assessing the situation of the two passengers but had made "differing judgments".

They thus escalated the case to management for further assessment and the additional time required meant the two passengers were unable to travel on the original flight.

It was later confirmed that they could travel safely without a companion and they were reaccommodated on a later flight, Kee said.

"We have reviewed and improved our handling procedures to prevent similar incidents in the future, HK Express reiterates that we have a stringent equal opportunity policy and are committed to providing safe air travel for passengers with different needs."

In 2011, a 35-year-old blind passenger Zhu Min was denied access to a flight by ground staff of Hong Kong Airlines, who told him that visually impaired people could not travel alone.

He was only allowed to board following intervention by the blind union, Equal Opportunities Commission, police and Airport Authority.

The airline denied barring Zhu from the flight but apologized, calling the incident a result of "miscommunication".

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