Ten passengers who were stranded at Hong Kong International Airport after arriving on an Emirates Airlines flight will be sent back to Dubai upon completing quarantine, with the carrier temporarily suspending transit flights to the city.
The news came as Hong Kong on Thursday recorded nine imported Covid-19 cases, including eight arriving from India and one from Pakistan. The latest additions brought the city’s tally of confirmed infections to 1,242, with seven related deaths.
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Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK), the airport’s operator, introduced stricter penalties on July 1 for airlines flying unauthorised passengers to and through the city, after discovering 11 people travelling with the Middle Eastern carrier had been stuck in the transit zone for five days after failing to present valid boarding passes for mainland China.
While Hong Kong resumed transit flight services on June 1, the mainland has remained off-limits, and the authority briefed airlines on the rules before the resumption of transfer services. Given those circumstances, it remains unclear why the stranded passengers were allowed to board the flight in Dubai.
The transit fiasco has brought to light the ordeal of several other passengers in similar situations, including a traveller from Canada who has been living at the airport for three months now.
In the Emirates case, public health concerns were raised as the group had shared a plane from which almost 30 Covid-19 cases had been detected.
“We are aware of the updated transfer/transit service arrangements at the Hong Kong International Airport and are complying with all relevant regulations to prevent similar incidents from occurring in future,” an Emirates spokeswoman told the Post on Thursday.
“The passengers will return to Dubai [the port of origin] after quarantine has been completed.”
The quarantine period for the travellers, who have all tested negative for Covid-19, ends this Saturday. They will undergo another virus test before leaving the quarantine centre.
An eleventh passenger in the group previously agreed to go back to Dubai before the rest were quarantined last week.
Emirates also said it would suspend transit services via HKIA from July 2 to 15. As a result, all passengers flying the airline’s next regular flight to Hong Kong will undergo “stringent” passport and boarding pass checks to prevent a repeat of the recent situation.
Emirates said any passengers booked through July 15 who planned to board a connecting flight in Hong Kong have been asked to contact the airline or travel agent to rebook.
In its announcement earlier this week, the Airport Authority said carriers faced having their transit privileges suspended should they bring unauthorised passengers to the city. Hong Kong’s borders are currently closed to non-residents.
In the case of the passenger flying from Canada, it was a connecting flight to Vietnam, not mainland China, involved. While the airport has no prohibition on transit flights to the Southeast Asian neighbour, Vietnam is not accepting travellers. Barred from entering the country, the woman, who flew to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, has refused to leave the transit area.
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The Post understands that a mainland Chinese resident, who arrived on a British Airways flight on June 13, has also been residing in the airport’s transit area. The 63-year-old woman has refused multiple offers to return to London for free, where she would then be flown to mainland China without charge and on to her mainland destination: Zhuhai.
She left for the UK some five months ago to visit relatives, coming back to Hong Kong using the return portion of her ticket.
Airlines who fly would-be transit passengers to Hong Kong are in a bind, as there are no existing regulations allowing either carriers or the airport to remove passengers from the transit area against their will.
The Airport Authority has been working with relevant government departments in a bid to strengthen the rules around flight management, immigration and quarantine for transfer passengers.
Other new punishments, should airlines breach the rules going forward, would include forcing them to do passport and boarding pass checks on passengers before allowing them to disembark flights.
The authority added that airlines would have to bear all costs for mishandling their passengers and would be responsible for sending those without valid boarding passes back to their airport of departure immediately.
Meanwhile, a Chinese University study, which analysed data of the first 100 Covid-19 patients in Hong Kong, found that the city’s containment measures were effective in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.
The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology on Tuesday, found that most of the clusters involved families of two to four people, suggesting a high risk of transmission among family members. Nearly 80 per cent of reviewed cases also had a delay in being diagnosed and isolated.
Professor Paul Chan Kay-sheung, who led the study, said home quarantine arrangements for people returning from high-risk areas should be improved to prevent transmission between household members.
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