Airline apologizes after two blind passengers removed from a plane citing safety concerns

ByKathleen Magramo CNNWire logo
Tuesday, July 9, 2024
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HONG KONG -- Budget airline HK Express has apologized after two blind passengers alleged its crew removed them from a flight citing safety concerns, in an ordeal that left them feeling "insulted and embarrassed."

Passengers Andy Chui, 34, and John Li, 27, were booked for an afternoon flight from Hong Kong - where both reside - to Tokyo on May 22, and said they had notified the airline about their disability, according to a statement from the Hong Kong Blind Union.

The duo said they went through check-in without any issues and were escorted to the boarding gate as usual. On board, crew members briefed them about in-flight safety procedures but later removed them from the plane over safety concerns after learning they were traveling unaccompanied, according to Li and Chui.

"We felt insulted and embarrassed. They were treating us as if we were criminals," Chui said in a press conference on Sunday.

Blind Union president Billy Wong, who is authorized to speak on behalf of the two men, said the handling of the situation left the passengers confounded because they had been able to travel alone without issues on other airlines.

Wong also called on the airline to investigate its protocols and treatment of travelers with disabilities, saying guidelines from aviation authorities were toothless.

"They need to ensure that companies comply with these guidelines and that there are punitive measures when companies discriminate against people with disabilities," Wong told CNN.

HK Express said in a statement that "due to differing judgments made by the ground staff and aircrew," the case was escalated to management for assessment and the "additional time required" to decide had led to the pair being "unable to travel on the original flight."

The Hong Kong-based carrier is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cathay Pacific , which was recently crowned the world's fifth-best airline.

HK Express said its staff had followed the airline's "standard safety procedures," during the incident, without specifying whether the two passengers had failed to comply with its protocols.

The airline added it was later confirmed that "the two passengers could travel safely without a companion," and they were "re-accommodated on a later flight of their choice on the same day to their destination."

"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," HK Express commercial director KK Ong said in a separate statement. "We sincerely apologize for the delay and inconvenience caused to the two passengers."

Travelers with disabilities already face physical hurdles when navigating large, busy airports and catered, needs-based assistance is not always a guarantee.

In 2013, Albert Rizzi, a blind man from Long Island, and his dog, Doxy, were escorted off a US Airways flight after a heated exchange between him and a flight attendant. All 35 passengers on the flight walked off in solidarity with Rizzi.

Last year, Air Canada apologized and pledged to expedite accessibility improvements for passengers with disabilities after a man who uses a wheelchair made international headlines when he shared his experience of dragging himself off a flight.

Rodney Hodgins said he had to drag himself along the aisle, helped by his wife, when airport mobility assistance staff didn't turn up to aid him when his flight landed in Las Vegas.

Air Canada staff told him to disembark on foot - despite the fact that he can't walk - so they could turn the plane around, he said.

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