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HK Express compensates visually impaired passengers: How airlines can better protect rights of the disabled

HK Express compensates visually impaired passengers: How airlines can better protect rights of the disabled

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HK Express has apologised and offered compensation to two visually impaired passengers after the duo claimed that they were forced to get off a plane in May. 

According to a statement by the Hong Kong Blind Union on Sunday, the duo claimed that there were “forced” to get off a flight to Tokyo, Japan after they got on board on 22 May, citing their inability to meet the airline’s safety standards.  

The two passengers then reached out to the Hong Kong Blind Union, and the Civil Aviation Department arranged for them to take another flight on the same day. 

The duo said the crew members did not explain the safety standards, and they reached out to the company later on several occasions, but they were not convinced by the explanations, citing their incoherence including the “overbooking” of flight and the crew failed to agree on alternative arrangements for the duo.  

The incident has caused buzz over the past 24 hours, media intelligence firm CARMA observed over 1,500 mentions related to the incident, with 38.2% carrying negative sentiment and only 4% positive sentiment. 

The majority of netizens expressed their anger at the way the airline handled the situation, particularly regarding the inconsistent explanations given by the airline’s customer service representatives, said Charles Cheung, CARMA’s Hong Kong general manager. 

Disagreement over safety considerations 

In a statement seen by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, HK Express said in this incident, its ground employees and aircrew followed its standard safety procedures in assessing the situation of the two passengers.  

“As a result of the additional time required, the two passengers were unable to travel on the original flight. After further assessment, it was confirmed that the two passengers could travel safely without a companion. They were subsequently re-accommodated on a later flight of their choice on the same day to their destination,” said the company.  

“We sincerely apologise for the delay and inconvenience caused to the two passengers and will offer them compensation accordingly. Additionally, we have reviewed and improved our handling procedures to prevent similar incidents in the future,” the statement reads.  

KK Ong, commercial director of HK Express, clarified that the relevant flight was sold at about 70% of capacity, and the claim of "overbooking" was a misunderstanding. “Furthermore, we did not suggest to the two passengers transfer to travel on another airline at their own expense; rather, we actively assisted and arranged for them to board another HK Express flight on the same day.” 

Ong also states that the accusation of "being forced to be offloaded" is inaccurate. “The decision made by the aircrew was entirely based on safety considerations, and the on-duty staff accompanied the two passengers as they left the cabin,” he added. 

In response to the incident, the Equal Oppurtunites Commission will not comment on individual cases. If members of the public believe that they have been discriminated against when using air travel services, they can lodge a complaint with the EOC. 

Industry reactions 

Given that there are established guidelines from the Civil Aviation Department and the airline for accommodating visually impaired passengers, this incident is indeed perplexing and makes visually impaired individuals feel disrespected, according to an experienced PR professional who wished to stay anonymous. 

“The incident raises suspicions that the airline may be perceived as discriminating against disabled individuals, potentially damaging its brand image.” 

The incident also highlights the gap in internal communications within the airline, and possible training preparedness to handle such situations, said Jose Raymond, managing director, SW Strategies.  

“The apology to the affected passengers is the least the airline could do. What’s more important now is for all of its staff to be trained in uniformity so they’ll be handle such instances as according to the airline SOP in future,” he added. 

Agreeing with him was Kate Kwan, managing director, Team Lewis Greater China, who said HK Express should have exercised greater sensitivities to those with special needs.  

“While there might have been good intentions, stemming from adhering to safety considerations, the incident reveals the lack of media and/or reputational management training of the front-line operational staff and their ability to respond according to the unique needs of passengers. 

What more can be done? 

At its core, an airline has to first ensure that passengers can travel safely, and perhaps this incident can highlight the need for reviewing assessment protocols before the passengers board, said a PR professional who wished to stay anonymous. 

In fact, airlines operate within a set of well-established rules and requirements, which can be complex and vary from country to country. 

As such, Kwan said constant review and updates of safety operation protocols are necessary to cope with new demands. “This includes refresher training on the protocol for front-line staff. It is not surprising to see these gaps given the long period of COVID where operations came to a standstill for a while. Both corporate headquarters and operation teams may have gotten ‘rusty’ during this time,” she added. 

Furthermore, retraining should emphasise disability awareness and empathy, enabling staff to better support passengers with special needs, said Brian Yeung, co-founder, Brandstorm Communications.   

“Policy overhauls must create clear, inclusive protocols for accommodation. Publicly detailing these changes, including training specifics and new policies, demonstrates transparency and a commitment to preventing recurrence,” he added. 

On the customer experience front, Kevin Kan, chief experience officer, Break Out Consulting Asia said the airline could make clear their travel policies for all customers with disabilities at the time of ticket purchase. 

It should have passenger advocates available to support customers with disabilities when denied boarding takes place, he said. “Having passenger advocates on staff plays an important role in enhancing customer experience as they support the voice of the customer,” he added. 

Beyond the visually impaired, Celine Cheung, account director, RSVP Communications, said the airline should educate internal staff on how to deal with passengers with various disabilities.  

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