Hong Kong baggage security rules at odds with procedures at top airports and all US hubs
Government says letting bags be screened without their owner is in line with international standards. But many others do not allow it
Hong Kong airport’s decision to allow carry-on bags to be screened without the owner present is at odds with the practice at three of the world’s top airports and the rules that cover all of the US.
Local officials have said the procedure is in line with international standards, but at airports in Singapore, London and Munich, passengers must be present when the bags are screened, before they enter the restricted zone.
This means that if they realise after the security check that they left a carry-on bag on the other side, they will have to go out, retrieve it and clear security again. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees security at all US airports, recommends the same.
The question of whether passengers need to be with their bags for screening came up after the High Court ruled that Hong Kong International Airport bosses broke security rules in March 2016 when dealing with then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s daughter.
Leung Chung-yan had cleared security to take a Cathay Pacific Airways flight when she realised she had misplaced a bag. After her father called the airline for help, airport staff found the bag outside the restricted area, took it through security and delivered it to her at the gate.
In his ruling last week at the end of a judicial review, Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming declared that the Aviation Authority and the Aviation Security Company (Avseco) had broken rules in force at the time, which said the passenger had to take their own bags through screening.
The rule has since been eased to allow checking of cabin bags in the owner’s absence, despite airlines and airports globally implementing tighter screening rules for carry-on luggage.
Several days later, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said: “Our existing aviation security procedures are similar to those exercised at international airports in various countries.”
But aviation security expert Chris Bala, managing director of Singapore-based CJ Security Consulting, said airports typically require passengers to be present with their cabin bags for screening.
The reason for that, he said, was that the passenger could be asked immediately to open the bag if there were any irregularities.
Each country decides its own rules to ensure flight security, Bala noted, saying that, like Hong Kong, a number of airports in Southeast Asia did not require travellers to be present when cabin bags were screened.
That is not the practice at three of the world’s top 10 airports as ranked by website Skytrax, where Hong Kong airport is rated No 4. Singapore’s Changi Airport is No 1, Munich No 6 and London Heathrow No 8.
Changi and Heathrow require passengers to be present and ID-checked should they want to retrieve property that had been left behind. Neither allows airport staff to handle lost items and return them to the owner, particularly if it involves moving between the public and restricted areas.
In Singapore, if a passenger claims an item has been lost and airport staff have found it, the passenger must be present to collect it and show a passport or boarding pass for verification, Changi Airport said.
At Heathrow, passengers are advised to leave the restricted area of the airport to retrieve their belongings. The passenger will have to prove ownership of the bag, and the item is returned if airport staff are satisfied, the airport said.
A spokeswoman for Munich Airport said that in such situations the passenger must leave the restricted area, claim the misplaced bag and take it personally for security screening.
Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in Texas said there were “not really any situations we can think of” when a traveller who has cleared security could get an airline staff member or other personnel to retrieve and deliver a misplaced item.
“The rules in place where a passenger must be in charge of their luggage would make it very difficult for anyone but that passenger to retrieve and transport their luggage,” the airport said.
A source at Avseco confirmed that before the rule change it was an open secret that airlines would deliver to passengers bags they had left outside the restricted area, even though it was not allowed.
“It used to happen a lot,” said the source, who did not want to be named. The source added that the authority had changed the policy because of Leung Chung-yan’s case, a fact that Justice Chow also noted in court.
But airline sources said they would now avoid delivering misplaced bags from non-restricted to restricted zones because of the negative publicity from the high-profile incident.
Law Mei-mei, an executive council member of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association, launched the judicial review of the incident, saying she was concerned about whether flight attendants should be required or allowed to take unattended bags through security.
The authority argued that the matter was “academic”, since the rules had been changed after the fact, with the approval of the secretary for security. The rule book – known as the Aviation Security Programme – now allows screening of cabin bags in the passenger’s absence. Justice Chow sided with the plaintiff.
The rule previously stated that “all screening of cabin baggage shall be conducted in the presence of the passenger”. This was changed to say “the presence of the passenger is only required during reasoned secondary screening of cabin baggage”.