Consumer protection in Hong Kong

Forced off an overbooked flight in Hong Kong? Settle it yourself with airline as city has no laws on this

Consumer Council says Hong Kong falls behind US and EU regarding legislation to protect passengers, but most cases are resolved on-site or after complaints

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 July, 2017, 10:51pm

Hong Kong has no laws to protect airline passengers from being bumped off an overbooked flight, but the head of the city’s consumer watchdog is cautious about pushing for legislation on the matter.

Gilly Wong Fung-han, chief executive of the Consumer Council, said setting up legislation on protection or compensation for passengers in such cases was complicated.

The process would require collaboration between different markets and across jurisdictions, she said, adding that passengers in Hong Kong currently negotiate on a case-by-case basis with the airlines involved.

In comparison, there are existing laws in the United States and the European Union determining how much compensation airlines must pay passengers. No such law for the industry exists in Asia.

Wong said that when considering legislation in Hong Kong, factors such as the severity of the situation, aviation traffic and likelihood of such incidents at the time, as well as inter-market collaboration should be assessed.

Overbooked flights became a hot issue after an Asian-American doctor was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight in April to make room for its staff. The airline later apologised, and pledged to offer US$10,000 to passengers for giving up their seats in such cases.

In Hong Kong, local airlines have been reported to offer HK$780.

In the EU, compensation to the passenger is calculated according to flight distance, while compensation in the US is based on the total time delayed.

Hong Kong airline staff say United’s passenger booting incident unheard of locally and can be easily avoided

Wong also said that local passengers who booked flights to the US or the EU were covered by the compensation laws in those jurisdictions, even if the incident happened while the aircraft was still in Hong Kong.

“There have been cases where compensation offered to passengers in Hong Kong was actually less than the stipulated amount under the jurisdiction of the destination, but customers still accepted,” Wong said. However, according to her, upon finding out later that they were entitled to more, some passengers have complained to the council, and follow-up actions led to the airlines eventually paying the balance.

Wong advised affected consumers to obtain full details of the compensation, including the identity of the airline staff involved, before agreeing in writing to switch flights.

“Never feel shameful to clarify things in great detail,” Wong said.

She said the United Airlines case was “unprecedented”, because most overbooking issues were settled at the check-in counter, which could involve an upgrade, accommodation offers, or cash vouchers. “They will usually find some willing passengers to take the next flight,” Wong said.

Last year, the council received only about a dozen complaints of overbooking, out of more than 400 complaints about airlines.

Online shopping formed the bulk of complaints with more than 3,000 cases every year, Wong said.