Stranded Sapporo passengers return to Hong Kong amid row over HK$300 compensation

Group of 40 travellers caught in Hokkaido snowstorm call for better consumer rights after rejecting ‘grossly inadequate’ offer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 December, 2016, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 1:03pm

The last of more than 2,000 Hong Kong travellers who were stranded in snowbound northern Japan over Christmas were on their way home on Monday night amid criticism from some that an offer to compensate them for the chaos was “grossly inadequate’’.

A group of 40 angry Hong Kong Airlines passengers rejected a HK$300 “goodwill gesture”, accusing the airline of poor communication and inadequate provision of essential items like food, water and blankets during their ordeal sparked by the worst snow storm Japan has seen for more than half a century.

1,600 Hongkongers stranded in Japan by severe weather flown home

The Hongkongers were among 6,000 travellers affected as 96cm of snow fell in Japan’s Hokkaido region at the weekend, shutting down New Chitose Airport, which serves the city of Sapporo. A backlog of flights left airlines scrambling to organise extra services. Hong Kong carriers scheduled at least a dozen additional flights.

Journalist Huw Griffith, 41, coordinating the efforts of 40 disaffected Hong Kong Airlines passengers, said: “If there was some sort of decent penalty for airlines behaving inadequately and for not dealing with the situation, it would concentrate the mind a little bit.”

He rejected the airline’s “goodwill gesture” which required him to sign a “full and final settlement for the delay and hereby waive all my rights to further claims...”

Airport now open after snow deluge in Hokkaido delayed at least seven flights between Sapporo and Hong Kong

“They were offering HK$300 per person for the delay,” he said. “We knew people who had been on earlier delayed flights that had been given HK$1,200. I think HK$1,200 is grossly inadequate anyway. To offer one group of passengers HK$1,200 and another group HK$300 defies belief and understanding.”

Watch: Snowstorm traps hundreds of Hongkongers in Sapporo

Hong Kong Airlines did not comment on the issue of compensation. However, it denied allegations that its staff failed to put in enough effort to solve ongoing problems or failed to provide provisions. It urged passengers to “review” travel plans in light of “uncertain weather conditions”.

In Europe, travellers hit by delays and cancellations can claim€250 (HK$2,027) for short-haul trips and up to 600 for long-haul delays and cancellations.

Payouts are not offered for weather events, but passengers are eligible for compensation when delays and cancellations occur for technical and mechanical reasons or when pilots hit the number of hours they can legally fly a plane – the last of which applied after weather conditions improved in Japan.

The group, arriving on flight HX697 on Monday, claimed another Hong Kong Airlines flight was delayed for a similar time and its passengers said they were offered HK$1,200.

On learning that the other group was offered more compensation, passenger Zhao Haifeng said: “We want people to know how this airline behaved. Are they caring for customers or maximising their own profit?”

Andrew Wan Siu-kin, a Democratic Party lawmaker and consumer rights advocate, said the arrangements offered by the airline were “unacceptable”.

“These airlines have not taken on their responsibility. Apart from compensation, arrangements and proper hospitality for the customer should be provided ... but airline consumers got almost nothing.

The Consumer Council did not respond on the question of boosting rights for air passengers, but reminded them to take out “suitable” travel insurance and urged airlines to make better arrangements for stranded passengers in adverse weather.

The warning of further bad weather and flight cancellations has not deterred all travellers. At least five tour groups from Hong Kong set off to Hokkaido on ­Boxing Day as flights resumed ­gradually.

Snowstorms and airport chaos

Day 1 - December 22

Heavy snow blankets the Hokkaido region. The snowstorm shuts down New Chitose Airport, the main international gateway. Cathay Pacific flight 582 departed that day and was forced to turn back midway because of the bad weather, triggering an immediate backlog of hundreds of passengers.

Day 2 - December 23

Some 960mm of snow dumped on Sapporo on Friday night. The shutdown of the airport continues and 280 domestic and international flights are axed.

Day 3 - December 24, Christmas Ev e

Around 95 more flights are cancelled. The relatively small international terminal at New Chitose Airport almost buckles under the strain of 6,000 people.

Day 4 - December 25, Christmas Day

Cathay Pacific marshals rescue flights from Hong Kong to pick up 1,600 stranded passengers.

Day 5 - December 26

Four more rescue flights, carrying around 1,000 passengers, sent to pick up Hongkongers.

Additional reporting by Naomi Ng