Airline staff refused to allow a wheelchair user to board a flight at Hong Kong International Airport because she was travelling alone, sparking calls from a lawmaker for the carrier to make its instructions clearer.
Shen Chengqing, 22, was supposed to take a Hong Kong Airlines flight to Tianjin in northeastern China at 8.40pm on Friday.
However, after she arrived at the airport for the 3½-hour flight, Shen said airline staff refused to check her in as she was not able to walk and did not have a travel companion.
"I felt very anxious and angry at the time. I don't understand why this could happen in Hong Kong," Shen said.
"Because of this reason, we refused to let her board the plane alone," the female employee told Shen's friend, who was with her at the airport.
Shen said she had earlier told Hong Kong Airlines she used a wheelchair, and that it had a responsibility to explain its policy better to passengers.
According to the airline's website, passengers are allowed to check in their wheelchairs and will be provided with substitutes on board.
While flight attendants can assist wheelchair users with moving to and from their seats, the airline said employees would not help with personal care including using the toilet and taking medication, due to safety concerns.
"For these needs, we recommend you travel with a personal care attendant," the website reads.
But Shen was dissatisfied with the airline's reasoning.
"If there are safety concerns, there should be better facilities to ensure my safety, instead of not allowing me on a plane," she said.
Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam Man-ho said the airline's online instructions were unclear compared with those of other airlines.
"People might not know what you mean, using words like recommend," Tam said.
Rival carrier Cathay Pacific Airways requires some passengers to travel with a companion.
"It is a requirement that you travel with a safety assistant if you are unable to physically assist in your own evacuation," its website said.
Tam said airlines should send special instructions to passengers who used wheelchairs or had other disabilities when they booked flights.
However, he said it was common practice for local airlines to not allow passengers to board flights without a companion if they were unable to take care of themselves.
"What if there is an emergency? Who is going to care for the passenger?" Tam said.
Shen travelled to Shenzhen to take a flight home on Saturday, her friend said.
He also said Shen had no trouble taking an Air China flight to Hong Kong earlier this week.
Shen had not received a refund because she bought her ticket from a third-party company, he added.
A spokeswoman for Hong Kong Airlines on Saturday said passengers travelling alone must have the ability to take care of themselves, including in eating and drinking, taking medication and using the lavatory. Those unable to do so must take flights with family or friends, she said.
The spokeswoman said when Shen went to check in on January 25, staff concluded after a detailed evaluation that she would have to take the flight with a companion.
The company would follow up the issue, she added.
However, Shen on Saturday said airline staff had rejected her owing to what they called safety problems arising from her inability to eat and take medication, despite her having earlier confirmed she could do those things.
"They rejected me for this reason verbally," she said. "But their written rejection says 'disability: unable to walk long distances', which is ridiculous.
"I do not need help with eating or using the bathroom. All I need is assistance to move my wheelchair."
She said she had travelled by air almost every month in the past six months and had not had a problem.
"I thought taking flights from Hong Kong would be reliable. I did not expect this," she added.
Airline staff had told a friend of Shen's upon booking the flight that wheelchair services would be provided, Shen said.
"The staff never said she must travel with a companion," the friend insisted.
Shen said she spent more than 2,000 yuan (HK$295) on another ticket the next day from Shenzhen to Tianjin, and had been forced to trouble friends to accompany her.
"Besides the money and delay to my work and other schedules, I also caused trouble for my friends, and worried my family," she said.
This article was first published on South China Morning Post.