Sensationalized media reports, politically charged statements from government officials and rapidly changing circumstances on ground are making it difficult get a full picture of the crisis at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG). Fortunately, the world’s largest expert flyer community has a wealth of firsthand accounts to give travelers a true sense of the situation.
Was There Actually A Protest at Hong Kong Airport?
Initial reports described Monday’s emergency at Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) as an act of civil disobedience involving thousands of protesters, which led government officials to cancel all outbound flights. In a travel alert waiving change fees for passengers with itineraries including HKG, American Airlines referred to the disruption as a “public assembly.” At least one Flyertalk member, however, disputed that characterization, noting that those gathered at the airport were likely attempting to escape a violent police crackdown.
“After Sunday night’s massive police brutality when tear gas was deployed in unimaginable places and manner, the leaderless crowd felt like the airport is the last safe place where police can’t possibly launch tear gas,” Flyertalk member HkCaGu wrote. “However, the authorities decided to cancel the entire evening worth of departures and ground stopped all East Asian arrivals. Many unequipped protesters left under the threat of dwindling passengers and emerging possibility of tear gas. There was no ‘civil unrest’ at the airport.”
A second day of canceled flights and airport terminal closures would seem to indicate that the airport has become something of a rally point for protesters. Although government officials contend that crowds at the airport are part of an organized sit-in, anti-government protesters insist that the airport was occupied out of necessity rather than by design.
Flyertalk Eyewitness Reports from Hong Kong Airport
Whatever the reasons for the thousands of protesters gathering in public areas of the terminals and clogging roads surrounding the airport, the Flyertalk forums detail a chaotic scene on the ground. Those arriving on inbound flights report that large parts of the facility were already nearly impassable by early Monday morning.
“Just landed at HKIA. Protest extends from arrivals all though way the slope where you get the busses,” a recently arriving passenger reported just prior to the airport’s closure on Monday. “It’s like a maze trying to get through. Roads to airport jammed. Police are controlling traffic on the roundabout as none of the busses can get out of the airport terminus otherwise.”
Flyertalkers report that although inbound flights already in the air were allowed to land, flights which had not already departed for Hong Kong were, in most cases, prevented from taking off after HKG closures were announced on both Monday and Tuesday.
Other posts noted that despite the airport announcing an “emergency closure,” a select number of flights were in fact permitted to arrive and depart. At least one Flyertalker described very little difficulty departing on a British Airways flight Monday night—long after the airport had officially closed.
“The demonstrators are crowding the departure halls, which means it’s impossible for check in staff to do their job, and for passengers to safely get to, and through, security. Pretty much the rest of the airport *can* operate (including getting crew safely airside),” member kt74 offered. “Arriving passengers were exiting the airport fine—there were crowds, and the approach roads were blocked for a time, but the Airport Express operated throughout. The airport did not shut down entirely and there were some arrivals and departures when it was notionally ‘closed’; I understand why the airport did not want to advertise the fact that flights were leaving—the last thing they needed was more passengers coming to the departures.”
Ground Transportation Grounded
Although Flyertalk forums report that Airport Express and some other public transportation options remained in operation with intermittent disruptions for passengers arriving at the airport,there were also reports that police were stopping traffic headed to Hong Kong Airport after the airport officially closed on Monday and again on Tuesday. Even before this latest protest action, strikes halted some rail and bus service to the facility on a number of documented occasions – though rail service to destinations outside of the Hong Kong region has so far remained mostly unaffected. Flyertalk members report that in addition to government orders to close ticket counters at the airport, In-Town Check in Service outlets suspended operations on Monday and Tuesday and a number of airport transportation services were reportedly forced to stop booking rides to the airport.
How Safe Is It at Hong Kong Airport?
On August 7th, the U.S. Department of State raised the travel advisory for those visiting Hong Kong to Level 2: Exercise Increase Caution due to “civil unrest.” The advisory has not been updated since the protests caused the airport to close this week. On the other hand, the latest comments from the Oval Office suggested that Chinese troops were amassing near the Hong Kong border, with President Trump telling reporters that he “hopes nobody gets killed.”
Although some media reports have indicated that foreign travelers arriving at Hong Kong Airport have been assaulted by protesters, Flyertalk members who have arrived at the airport in the hours since protesters started gathering at the airport, say that despite the overwhelming size of the crowds, demonstrators did not make any attempts to block air travelers from passing through terminal areas.
What the Airlines Are Saying
Nearly every carrier operating at Hong Kong Airport is allowing passengers booked on at least some upcoming flights to reschedule travel without penalty, but the airlines are short on information about how long disruptions are expected to continue or when regularly scheduled flights will resume. In its latest travel advisory on Wednesday, Cathay Pacific said that all flights would be operating as scheduled on Wednesday, but cautioned “there is potential for further flight disruptions at short notice.”
“Customers should not proceed to the airport unless they have a confirmed booking,” the airline advised. “We suggest passengers arrive 3 to 4 hours prior to their flight’s scheduled departure time, and also to take advantage of our In-Town Check-in services, which resume today. With immediate effect, all charges and fare differences will be waived for certain ticket changes.”
The somewhat vague status report from the Hong Kong-based carrier backs up a number of reports from the Flyertalk forums indicating that airlines don’t have a real handle on exactly what is going on at the airport. British Airways frequent flyers report the airline was continuing to confirm bookings on Hong Kong-bound itineraries connecting through London Heathrow Airport (LHR) despite the fact that HKG was effectively closed to air traffic. To make matters worse, passengers stuck in Hong Kong were, in many cases, left to fend for themselves after terminals were closed (making it impossible for airport-based customer service agents to be on hand to provide assistance with overnight accommodations or meal vouchers).
Situation Changing by the Minute
Cathay’s admonishment that things could change at short notice appears to be on the mark. The airline’s hopeful projection that today’s flights would be operating as scheduled mirrors a similar alert (which proved less than accurate) from the prior day.
Of course, the ever-changing events at HKG proved that even seasoned passengers who were all but certain they were on their way home, perhaps shouldn’t have counted their chickens before they had hatched.
“Door closed 5 minutes ago,” one British Airways passenger who almost made it out of Hong Kong on Tuesday wrote. “We pushed back… before the tug was disconnected, the pilot announced that we were going nowhere. He said “Hong Kong is closed” (sure hope he meant just the airport, not the entire Hong Kong?). Apparently, the tug is going to remain connected and tow us to a remote stand for parking. Then buses will come to take us back to the terminal. Some other plane is waiting to use our gate. Looks like the pilots and/or airline operations realized how ridiculous that idea was… we didn’t even finish pushback…. plane is moving back to the gate to let us off.”
Has your travel to or from Hong Kong been interrupted since government officials declared an emergency due to civil unrest at the airport? Flyertalkers are sharing the latest news from the ground, a few creative workarounds and solid advice on protecting your rights in the FlyerTalk Forums now.
[Image Source: FlyerTalk]