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How to navigate Hong Kong International Airport amid protests and flight cancellations

Protesters occupy Hong Kong International Airport, on the island Chek Lap Kok. (Laurel Chor/EPA-EFE)

Chaos returned to Hong Kong International Airport Tuesday afternoon as protesters flooded back into terminals, blocking passengers from reaching their gates and prompting the airport to suspend all check-ins for departing flights.

That followed widespread cancellations and delays at the busy international hub on Monday, when demonstrators shut down the airport entirely. Some flights had resumed earlier Tuesday before the airport halted check-in processes and urged passengers to leave terminal buildings “as soon as possible.”

And with additional demonstrations expected, travelers may need to prepare for more of the same in the coming days, weeks and even months.

Experts say the city is still generally safe to visit, as long as travelers avoid protests, remain flexible and stay alert to any changes. But for those coming through the airport, it may be impossible to avoid disruption.

Here are some things to consider for anyone affected by the situation at Hong Kong International Airport:

Before leaving for the airport

If a flight has been canceled and a traveler is not yet at the airport, they should get in touch with their travel agency or airline for information on the rescheduled flight, said Matt Bradley, regional security director at International SOS.

“Monitor local developments to ensure the airport is open and operating before moving to the airport,” he said in an email.

Shannon McMahon, an editor at online travel magazine SmarterTravel, said in an email that travelers who want to amend their plans should check with airlines to see if they’re offering the option to change flights without a fee.

After arriving at the airport

Recent protests have taken place before checkpoints, which kept many travelers from being able to check in or pass through security. In a situation like that, experts said, travelers should move away from the activity.

“If you have not passed through security and are not allowed to do so, move to an area of the airport away from protesters,” Bradley said. “Wait for the demonstration to disperse before attempting to leave the airport. If the airport has a hotel on property, you may want to move to the hotel to wait until the demonstration is over. Avoid the demonstrators even if they appear peaceful, as the situation can change quickly.”

In case travelers need to leave the airport to wait out a cancellation, they may be covered for some expenses if they have travel insurance. Jenna Hummer, spokeswoman for travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth, says the standard benefit that covers long delays and cancellations would reimburse the cost of meals, accommodations and transportation to a place to stay.

“That can be really helpful for people that are stuck for 12 hours, 24 hours,” she says.

For travelers who are allowed to go through security, Bob Howell — a senior adviser for global critical operations at the crisis response firm WorldAware — says speed is the most important thing to keep in mind.

“Preregister, pre-check in for your flight, and spend as little time as possible with checking luggage — or better yet, if you can, carry on luggage. It’s best to get through airport security as soon as possible, because then you’ll be in a safer area,” he said in an email.

Past security in the airport

“The Hong Kong issue is a peaceful sit-in, so it’s more about rebooking flights and making sure you’re in a safe place,” Howell wrote. “But should there be a situation where there is violence and confrontation, you need to get to a safe place.”

Howell recommends airline clubs as one option if a traveler is able to gain access. They tend to be more restricted areas, with heightened levels of security.

Furthermore, Bradley said travelers who are stuck at the airport after cancellations should not be in a rush to leave, because transportation could be limited.

“If you are already beyond security when your flight is canceled, stay in the secure area until the demonstration disperses or authorities advise that normal movement can continue,” he said.

Rerouted on the way to Hong Kong

As demonstrators began to gather at the airport, the South China Morning Post reported that some flights returned to their original airport, while others ended up in entirely different destinations. Bradley advises travelers to be flexible and follow the instructions of the airline in these situations.

“If the airline offers a hotel, you may want to wait there. The airline will provide information about the next available flight. As soon as practical, let your company or a family member know you have been rerouted and the new destination.”

Traveling to Hong Kong soon

Bradley said potential visitors should first consider whether a trip would be necessary and productive under the circumstances.

“If you decide to proceed with the travel, maintain a flexible itinerary and prepare for disruption,” he wrote. “Monitor local events, have a trusted local contact and minimize movement while in the city. Book your accommodations near your meeting or tourist activity to minimize exposure on the street. Pack enough medicines and other essentials to last a couple of days beyond your expected departure in case of flight cancellations or airport closures.”

Leading up to a flight, Howell said, travelers should reconfirm 24 and 12 hours in advance, download their airline app to check the flight status and keep an eye on reports of demonstrations.

“Protests at the airport are likely to continue,” Bradley said.

Read more:

Airport standstill, citywide strikes and street protests: What’s happening in Hong Kong?

Understanding the State Department’s updated travel advisories

Hong Kong airport protest shutdown tarnishes business image

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