Thieves caught stealing on board overseas-registered flights outside Hong Kong airspace used to be able to walk free because local police had no jurisdiction.
Now they're being locked up after the police found a way to shut the loophole. But the charge is not theft - it is disorderly conduct. And while the maximum penalties are less severe than for stealing, it has given police a useful tool to combat a trend in which well-dressed thieves raid the overhead lockers of airliners while passengers are asleep or not paying attention.
The issue surfaced after police dealt with several similar cases in March and April and had to let the suspects go because the Theft Ordinance did not apply to crimes committed on overseas-registered flights outside Hong Kong airspace.
"We understood there was a problem and therefore we sought advice from Department of Justice," a police officer said.
The department and the force agreed the culprits could be charged with disorderly conduct under the Aviation Security Ordinance, which applies to flights in or outside Hong Kong airspace.
Since May, police have arrested about 10 mainlanders in connection with in-flight theft. They were convicted in Tsuen Wan Court of disorderly behaviour and jailed.
All came from the same city in Henan province and investigations showed they had been paid by someone else to make the thefts.
Before May, police did make arrests in connection with this type of crime but "they were not charged and we had to let them go", an officer said.
He said the problem had not been so bad since the arrests.
"They are still coming, but are less frequent," the officer said.
Under the Theft Ordinance, the maximum penalty is 10 years' jail, while disorderly conduct on board an aircraft is two years.
Reports of in-flight theft dropped to 11 in the third quarter of this year from 38 in the second quarter. There were 13 cases in the first quarter.