A woman who stayed three weeks at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) left earlier this month, but her departure sparked accusations of double standards by the authorities.
She was the last of more than a dozen people found stranded at the terminal after Hong Kong suspended transit services because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Without valid connecting flights to their destinations, they remained at the terminal.
The 63-year-old woman, who arrived from London on a British Airways flight on June 13, was allowed to fly to Shanghai on July 5, the Post has learned.
In earlier cases, passengers stuck at the airport were made to return to their points of origin.
It emerged over the past month that the failure of some airlines to ensure their passengers had valid connecting flights resulted in more than a dozen travellers remaining at HKIA’s transit area for between a few days and three months.
The woman, a mainland China resident, arrived in Hong Kong from London on a British Airways flight, on her way to Zhuhai, in Guangdong province. With transit services suspended, she stayed put for about three weeks.
A BA spokesman confirmed that she left HKIA on July 5, but declined to say where she went. An Airport Authority spokeswoman confirmed there were no stranded passengers left, but also would not elaborate.
A source familiar with the case told the Post: “She left Hong Kong on a flight to mainland China.” It is understood that the woman, who never left the airport while she was stranded, flew to Shanghai.
The woman is believed to have visited London earlier in the year to see family and ended up being stuck there for five months because of pandemic restrictions in Britain.
Another source said that when she found herself stranded at HKIA, the woman refused to be sent back to London free of charge. She would then have been put on a flight to the mainland, also for free.
It is understood that she resisted returning to London, claiming there had been a family disagreement and she feared she would end up stranded there with no help.
The authorities’ decision to let her leave Hong Kong for the mainland deviated from the Airport Authority’s instruction to airlines that all such passengers must return to their points of origin.
The Immigration Department refused to respond to questions about the woman, saying it did not comment on individual cases.
All it would say, in an email response to the Post, was: “ImmD will handle removal arrangements for persons who have been refused to land in accordance with relevant legislation and procedures.”
As part of Hong Kong’s pandemic response, all transit services at HKIA were suspended on March 25.
The problem of stranded passengers came to light after the airport resumed transit services on June 1, but the mainland still remained off-limits for transfers.
Most of the stranded passengers were heading to mainland destinations.
As cases emerged one after the other, the Airport Authority pledged to work with other government departments to tighten flight management, immigration and quarantine procedures for transit travellers.
The authority also warned airlines that if they allowed unauthorised passengers to travel to Hong Kong, they risked tougher passenger inspections and might even be banned from bringing transit passengers.
Several airlines complained repeatedly that they lacked the power to remove passengers who had left the aircraft and remained in the airport without clearing immigration checks to enter Hong Kong.
Some passengers, knowing that they could not be forcibly removed, chose to stay in the terminal.
Among them was a Cathay Pacific passenger who arrived from Canada in mid-March on his way to Vietnam and spent three months in the terminal.
But it later emerged that the man had a Hong Kong identity card and cleared immigration to enter the city on July 2. It is not known why he chose to remain in the airport for so long.
A group of 10 Emirates Airline passengers stranded at HKIA for several days in mid-June sparked public health concerns when it was discovered that they travelled on the same aircraft as more than two dozen people found to be infected with Covid-19.
The 10 were sent to a quarantine centre and were allowed to be sent back to Dubai after they were found to be clear of infection.
As a result of that case, Emirates stopped all Hong Kong transfers for two weeks earlier this month.
Commenting on the latest case of the stranded woman allowed to return to the mainland, lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho, an aviation expert and former pilot, said: “It is a case of double standards.”
Given that the previous stranded passengers were made to return to their points of origin, he said the case raised questions about why Hong Kong made an exception for this particular passenger.
Unless the passenger had a special reason or there was a matter of absolute urgency, it should not have been done, he added.