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CY Leung left luggage saga

Should Hong Kong’s airport security be breached for VIPs, including the chief executive’s daughter?

Albert Cheng says airport rules to ensure safety must be adhered to at all times. If broken, as seems to be the case with the baggage of Leung Chun-ying’s daughter, an explanation is due

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2016, 5:30pm

According to the International Air Transport Association (Iata), the total number of passengers carried annually by the world’s airlines will hit 3.8 billion this year, a rise of more than 30 per cent over 2011. Given this large volume, security for air traffic cannot be underestimated. Since the September 11 terrorist attack, civil aviation security has been drastically tightened around the globe. Yet, incidents such as the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, and the suicide bombing in a departure hall at Brussels Airport, serve as vivid reminders that air safety is under constant threat.

As airlines and authorities continue to step up security measures, longer queues and other inconveniences have become inevitable for passengers. Customer complaints have been on the increase. Minor incidents are often blown out of proportion in the media. Such negative publicity has marred the reputation of Hong Kong as a civil aviation hub.

As Hong Kong’s banner carrier, Cathay Pacific bears the brunt of such grievances. Its frontline staff are under constant pressure from grumbling customers to bend the rules, and offer special treatment on matters ranging from late check-ins to overweight baggage.

Woman evades three levels of Hong Kong airport security

Airlines and airport operators prefer to advertise their efficiency and quality of inflight service. They are less inclined to stress the importance of flight safety, lest they should scare away jittery travellers. That, however, does not mean they do not take security seriously. In fact, they have invested heavily to keep air travelling as safe as possible. For example, there are stringent rules on how long flight crew are permitted to work by law. Overtime is not allowed. Furthermore, if a mechanical fault is identified in a plane, all aircraft of the same model are likely to be grounded until the issue is resolved.

Security procedures at airports are as vital. Ground staff, security guards and other airport support crew are given clear guidelines.

Immigration control aside, the transport and monitoring of baggage is equally important. There are notices to warn passengers not to leave personal belongings unattended at all times, for instance.

Safety rules and procedures should be adhered to. However, in a much-publicised recent incident, ground crew were apparently under pressure to exercise undue discretion for the daughter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department says security measures were fulfilled in bringing bag to chief executive’s daughter

Despite the public outcry, we have yet to hear the full story from those who directly dealt with the incident. However, the basics are that, after a phone conversation with Leung, a decision was made for employees to take his daughter’s carry-on bag that had been left in the departure hall to the restricted area.

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Officials maintained the bag had gone through security checks, in compliance with international practice. Most people remain unconvinced. As noted by the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, according to Iata guidelines, the traveller should be with their carry-on luggage at the security check.

Thus, there would seem to have been a security breach. The federation staged a sit-in at Hong Kong International Airport last Sunday to press the director general of civil aviation, Norman Lo Shung-man, to clarify the rules. Some 2,500 people showed up (police put the figure at 1,000), reflecting the genuine concern among those who have to deal with such issues daily.

The authorities have left the impression that special treatment can indeed be extended to “privileged travellers”, such as family members of the chief executive. If that is the case, officials should at least make it clear who is entitled to these preferential services. More importantly, they should also explain in no uncertain terms the legal liability of those who are supposed to carry the left luggage for these VIPs.

As things now stand, the chief executive, secretary for security, secretary for transport and housing, plus the director general of civil aviation and the head of the Airport Authority have all failed to address a fundamental loophole in the handling of left luggage at our otherwise first-rate airport.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk