Airport chiefs broke safety rules for former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying’s daughter, court finds
Judge agrees with flight attendant that Leung Chung-yan should have been present when her left-behind bag was X-ray screened – despite the government changing the rules after the event
Hong Kong’s High Court ruled on Thursday that airport bosses broke security rules when they delivered a left-behind bag to then chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s daughter at a boarding gate two years ago.
Justice Anderson Chow Ka-ming sided with flight attendant Law Mei-mei, who initiated a judicial review over the incident which turned into a political furore for Leung, whose term ended last year. At issue was whether a cabin bag could be taken through security screening without the passenger accompanying it – in this case, Leung Chung-yan.
In his 50-page ruling, Chow declared decisions made by the Airport Authority and the Aviation Security Company (AVESCO) contravened the Hong Kong Aviation Security Programme (HKASP) in force at the time. He concluded the government had later amended the security rules specifically to address the Leung case.
Leung Chun-ying posted on Facebook several hours after the ruling, insisting the authority had always allowed courtesy delivery when handling left-behind luggage.
“So when the airline crew handed over the luggage to Chung-yan, it was the usual practice rather than a prerogative,” he wrote.
It was reported in 2016 that Leung, as the city’s leader, had personally asked over the phone that Cathay Pacific staff help his daughter. A subsequent statement from the Chief Executive’s Office confirmed Leung had spoken to airline staff over his daughter’s phone to find out how the luggage could be retrieved, but clarified that he was never in touch with officials from the authority.
But Chow’s judgment rejected Leung’s argument, saying there was no information on such courtesy deliveries, and the authority had refused to deliver the bag to Leung Chung-yan in the first place.
Leung also told Chinese-language media on Thursday that the judicial review was a “political act rather than a safety issue”, but did not elaborate.
Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation spokeswoman Carol Ng Man-yee said her group – an umbrella organisation that includes Law’s flight attendants’ union – was “very pleased” with the court ruling and demanded the Airport Authority and Civil Aviation Department apologise for going against their safety-first principle in the 2016 incident.
“What would I tell Leung Chun-ying and his wife? I’d tell everyone the same thing: it’s everyone’s obligation to follow the rules,” Ng said outside court.
The court was previously told that Leung Chung-yan realised she had left behind a bag at the check-in counter after she had gone through security to board a Cathay Pacific flight on March 27, 2016.
The authority declined to take the bag through because it considered it the airline’s responsibility, while AVESCO said it had no objection to the airline taking the bag.
Eventually, a Cathay Pacific staff member took the bag through X-ray security screening in Leung’s absence and delivered the bag to her at a boarding gate in the early hours of March 28.
At the time, the HKASP stated: “All screening of cabin baggage shall be conducted in the presence of the passenger.”
Law, a member of the executive council of the Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants Association, applied for the judicial review in June 2016. She said she was concerned about whether a flight attendant should be allowed or required to take unattended baggage through security screening.
The authority had argued in court that the review was “academic”, because the secretary for security amended the HKASP in 2018.
Chow accepted that the presence of the passenger at the primary screening of cabin baggage was no longer required under the new version of the relevant regulations. But he found the court still had the jurisdiction to hear and determine the question at issue, as he noted the amendment was brought in specifically because of Leung Chung-yan’s case.
“The injustice of dismissing the application for judicial review without consideration of its substantive merits simply because the secretary for security has exercised the power to amend the relevant regulations after the event would be stark,” Chow wrote.
When interpreting the original HKASP, the judge said the court should favour a construction of it that best promoted aviation security, and enhanced the smooth and efficient operation of the screening process.
He concluded it was clear that the presence of the passenger was required at the X-ray security screening of a cabin bag, given the HKASP’s objective was “to protect the safety, regularity and efficiency of international civil aviation in Hong Kong”.
And he further pointed out that the presence of the passenger would facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of the screening, since officers could then immediately conduct a secondary screening, while passengers could address queries relating to any suspicious items found, saving the trouble of having to find the passenger concerned.
Ng called for reinstatement of the old security rules, citing safety reasons.
A legislator backed that call, and asked the Security Bureau to explain who had made the decision to amend the HKASP. During the hearing, a bureau official told the court in writing that the amendments were made “to save costs and time for the court and the parties”.
The Civic Party’s Jeremy Tam Man-ho said: “Someone has breached the rule, but the authority amended the rule so it’s no longer a breach.
“It’s a shame that the authority changed the ASP just for this family. We will demand the authority switch back to its previous version.”
The Security Bureau would not comment on who pushed for the amendment, which came 14 months after the judicial review was filed.
The Airport Authority said it respected the court’s decision and would study it in detail, but stopped short of saying whether it would appeal, given that the rules had already been amended.