Alice in Aviation Land

June 27, 2018 10:05
Hong Kong airport authorities have come under fire for tweaking a rule that required passengers to be present at the screening of all cabin baggage. Representational image: Bloomberg

The magnetic personality of C.Y. Leung, previously deployed to reunite a left-behind bag with his daughter right at the boarding gate at Hong Kong International Airport, continues to attract controversy.

On March 28, 2016, the mislaid cabin baggage was hand-delivered by Cathay Pacific staff from a non-restricted area into a secure one, in apparent contravention of an aviation security rule then in force at Chek Lap Kok.

"All screening of cabin baggage shall be conducted in the presence of the passenger.” (Note the embracing "all" and the mandatory "shall" in paragraph 6.2.10 of the government-issued Hong Kong Aviation Security Programme (HKASP).

Given that it is part of the security system at one of the busiest airports on the planet, a reasonable man or woman would doubtless consider it in the public’s interests that no one be permitted to evade the rule.

Miss Leung's unaccompanied bag was made an exception of. For the record, C.Y. declared that he did not intervene. The Airport Authority's sequence of events records at 0007 hrs on March 28, 2016 that Terminal 1 Operation Officer received a call from "CX requesting AA to attend to and to release the found bag immediately because the case involved the Chief Executive’s daughter…”

A flight attendant promptly took the AA and Aviation Security Company Ltd (AVSECO) to court to challenge the decision to allow the bag through in its owner’s absence.

Came the scheduled hearing on June 20, 2018, came the revelation that the inconvenient rule has since been changed. Now, a passenger’s presence is only required when a suspicious piece of luggage needs to be examined a second time.

In what ordinary circumstances would one be separated from one’s cabin baggage? How does an item of cabin baggage get from the check-in area “landside” into the secure area "airside" other than carried by the passenger?

We were told that the new rule rendered the proceedings purely 'academic' and that pressing on with the legal row would be a waste of time and money.

Justification couched in such terms is so meretricious as to be laughable. In a sane and civilized world we call such gerrymandering "moving the goalposts."

Worse, it was announced that the change was to "improve efficiency and bring it in line with international standards."

As for bringing Chek Lap Kok security in line with international standards, just imagine the furor if Theresa May tried a similar "C.Y. ploy" at Heathrow:

"I’m sorry Prime Minister, but the rules are there to govern everybody, so please don't try to pull rank on us, we're only here for the security of everyone, and that includes you, so pull the other one."

Or President Emmanuel Macron in Orly:
“Je regrette, M’sieur Le President, mais il s’agit d’égalité pour tout le monde, est ce que Vous fou?”

And what sort of twisted mental gymnastics does it take to suggest that allowing a piece of cabin baggage to go through security without its owner improves efficiency?

The alternative argument, surely the last resort of the truly desperate, was that airport security staff should be invested with discretion to interpret the meaning of "all cabin baggage" as they saw fit. Our judges are most courteous but the temptation to laugh out loud must have been difficult to resist.

This is what I call the Humpty Dumpty argument: “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”. In which case, aviation security at Hong Kong's world class airport is an Alice in Wonderland world.

Not content with governmental sleight of hand by changing its own rules mid-process, the Airport Authority even tried to keep the public out from what was set down as an open-court hearing. The judge, wisely, refused the application; but perhaps it did reveal a glimmer of the sense of shame at having to display such deceitful trickery to the public eye.

Lest it be forgotten like Miss Leung’s cabin bag was, in April 2016, less than a month after the controversy, the AA submitted a report to the government to state that "AAHK is satisfied that at no time during the event was aviation security compromised." Which is not exactly the same as the government's claim that "the handling of the incident did not violate any airport security requirements and international aviation security standards.”

Whose idea was it then to tailor-make the change to paragraph 6.2.10 of HKASP in April 2018, just two months ahead of the judicial review?

AVSECO is a thoroughly professional organization staffed by trained personnel whose primary objective is the safety of air travelers. Though it is named as a respondent to the judicial review, I cannot believe that it would have dreamt up this nonsense that actually diminishes its ability to secure passenger safety.

I do not doubt that the AA regards this legal challenge as an annoying irritant but it would be inimical to its responsibilities to initiate such a change of the government’s rule.

The answer must surely lie in the fact that the testimony upon which the respondents relied came from Principal Assistant Secretary for Security Alex Chan Yuen-tak, who asserted that he was authorized to speak on behalf of the AA to oppose the application.

Hong Kong is a rules-based society which cannot afford to have a long-standing, established system tinkered with retrospectively on a whim, simply to legitimize past misconduct, whoever the culprit.

Magnetism did not keep Humpty Dumpty on the wall. Who, then, will put Humpty together again?

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Queen's Counsel