NGO slams ‘insulting’ removal of blind men from HK Express flight

An incident that saw two visually impaired men forced off a HK Express flight was a result of improper procedures, not discrimination, the head of Hong Kong’s equality watchdog has said.

A HK Express. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Lam, the chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), told RTHK on Monday the airline should improve their guidelines. Her comments came after two visually impaired men on Sunday said that cabin crew had forced them off a Tokyo-bound HK Express plane in May, citing safety concerns before letting them board a later flight.

“Strictly speaking, the company was not discriminating against them. It did not bar them from getting on a flight. If it were discrimination, it would be [a case of] it not letting them fly, but [the company] did not do that,” Lam said in Cantonese.

“They knew they had to have safety considerations. Problems arose when they were making this assessment,” she added.

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The Hong Kong Blind Union holds a press conference with Andy Chui and John Li, two men who were forced off a HK Express flight, on July 7, 2024. Photo: Hong Kong Blind Union, via Facebook.

Her comments came after two visually impaired men discussed their experience aboard the HK Express flight at a press conference.

The Hong Kong Blind Union, the organiser Sunday’s press conference, urged Cathay Pacific – which owns HK Express – to issue a public apology and launch an investigation into the incident. The association called the decision to remove the two men “insulting and offensive.”

Speaking on RTHK, Lam said the EOC had updated its guidelines in 2017 for how airlines can facilitate people with “reduced mobility in air travel,” covering how they can assess related safety concerns and if the passengers may require an escort. For example, airlines can consider whether travellers are able to unclip their seatbelts and if they can put on an oxygen mask independently.

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Equal Opportunities Commission. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The watchdog chair said airlines had the right to make these assessments, but that there was “room for improvement” in how HK Express had handled the incident.

‘Humiliated”

In the press conference on Sunday, the Hong Kong Blind Union said the two visually impaired men, Andy Chui and John Li, had boarded a flight bound for Tokyo on May 22. Flight attendants arranged for them to sit close to the front of the aircraft and gave them standard instructions in the event of an emergency evacuation.

But before the flight took off, the pair were informed they did not meet safety requirements and were barred from taking the flight.

Speaking at the press conference, Chui said he felt “humiliated” as passengers watched while he was forced off the aircraft.

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Aircrafts in the Hong Kong International Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: GovHK.

“I felt unhappy because I had planned a trip, and it was meant to be a relaxed and enjoyable thing. It didn’t feel good that I was suddenly made to leave the plane,” he said in Cantonese.

Chui and Li sought help from the Hong Kong Blind Union, which contacted the Civil Aviation Department. HK Express allowed the pair to board a flight for Tokyo later that night.

In the weeks after, Chui and Li sent emails and called the airline asking for an explanation. Initially, HK Express said they were denied boarding because the flight was overbooked. In a separate email, the airline apologised and said it would investigate the incident.

More than a month later, in early July, the airline said over the phone that it had not been able to confirm if it was cabin crew or the pilot who ordered the two men to be removed, and that it needed two more weeks to investigate. After the investigation, it would discuss whether it would offer them compensation.

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Tourists arrive at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

According to the union, however, the airline’s attitude changed after learning about the press conference. In a letter dated Saturday, which was shown to reporters, the airline reiterated its apology and said it would issue a compensation.

HK Express said the airline had to ensure the safety of all passengers under emergency situations, and that ground crew and cabin crew had not been able to reach a consensus in the case of Chui and Li.

“For the sake of caution and to ensure your safety, the case was handed to management for further assessment. As more time was needed, you were unable to take your intended flight,” the letter in Chinese read.

Lam, the EOC chair, said the equality watchdog was closely following the incident and would take appropriate follow-up action.

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