Egypt balloon tragedy

Travel agents have duty of care when sending clients abroad

The deaths of nine Hongkongers in Egypt in 2013 while riding a hot-air balloon a reminder that travel agencies must check the bona fides of their overseas partners

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:32am

Hot-air balloon flights have long been an adventurous way to get a bird’s-eye view of far-flung landscapes. But when things go wrong it can be catastrophic, as we are reminded by an inquest into the deaths of nine Hongkongers in Egypt in February 2013. The tragedy came a year after 11 people died when a hot-air balloon flight in New Zealand hit a power line and crashed in flames. Local coroner June Cheung Tin-ngan ruled the deaths of the Hongkongers, along with 10 others, were accidental when their basket plunged to earth after a blaze ignited by a hose fuel leak destroyed their balloon.

However, Cheung was critical of both the Travel Industry Council and Kuoni Travel about the balloon ride over Luxor. The 14-day hearing was told that the ride operator was recommended to Kuomi by its reception company Paradise Travel. But Kuomi neither conducted a risk-assessment nor checked the operator’s licensing documents or insurance policy. Cheung said she was surprised that the council and Kuomi failed to carry out any evaluation of the tragedy, and that it was disappointing the pair did not realise the risk despite the loss of nine lives. She recommended the council set new guidelines on the duty of travel firms to supervise reception agencies.

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Evidence uncovered in the hearing amounted to a cautionary tale for travellers who, naturally, seek the best value and most flexible tours in their quest for new experiences and broader knowledge. To keep the basic tour cost down, attractions such as balloon rides are often offered as optional extras. That can be a case of buyer beware, for their own safety as well as value for money. Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yau-chung points out that it is difficult for travel agencies to supervise reception companies and they could only trust local licensing systems. But it is not impossible. The council should heed the recommendation and encourage travellers to check that agencies discharge their duty of care.