Moroccan airline removes autistic Hong Kong ultra runner from flight, leaving him alone and frightened – and in a taxi to Marrakesh

BY Mark Agnew

Wu Man-hang is barred from boarding a flight because it is overbooked, but staff fail to take into account his autism Airline refuses other Marathon des Sables runner’s offer to swap and assures his group he will be on the next flight, but…

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(From left): Wu Man-hang, Lam Pok-yin and Leung Hok-hin, three autistic runners, at the Marathon des Sables. Wu was bumped off a Royal Air Maroc flight and left alone in the airport despite his condition. Photos: Handout

The sister of an autistic Hong Kong ultramarathon runner who was bumped off a flight in Morocco and left alone in an airport has complained about the “appalling, unprofessional and non-human approach” taken by the country’s largest airline.

Royal Air Maroc overbooked a flight and as a result left Wu Man-hang, who suffers from autism, alone in Ouarzazate airport, before sending him four hours across the desert alone in a taxi to Marrakesh, where his nightmare continued.

“The issue is appalling,” Elaine Wu said in an official complaint to the airline. “In particular, I am writing to complain about the unprofessional and non-human approach taken by AT [Royal Air Maroc] in the first stance, and demand a written apology and monetary compensation, as well as urge you to take serious effort to protect the interest of passengers with disabilities on special travel needs.”

Wu, 40, had taken part in the gruelling multi-day 250km Marathon des Sables (MDS) this month, but little did he know, the journey home would be far harder than the race itself.

(From left) Lam Pok-yin, Wu Man-hang and Leung Hok-hin with their psychologist (right) Rachel Poon prepare to run the 250km multi-day race.

Wu and four other Hongkongers arrived at the airport in Ouarzazate, in southern Morocco, with plenty of time to make their flight to Casablanca. Three of the group have autism and the other two had volunteered to act as carers during their time abroad.

Royal Air Maroc, however, had overbooked the flight. The first four were allowed on board, but Wu was told he would have to wait for the next flight.

I am writing to ... demand a written apology and monetary compensation, as well as urge you to take serious effort to protect the interest of passengers with disabilities on special travel needs

Elaine Wu, Wu Man-hang’s sister

Wu’s companions explained he has autism and speaks no English, so leaving him unaccompanied would be dangerous, but the staff refused to budge despite the company’s own “Denied Boarding Procedures and Policies” that states: “Passengers with a disability and unaccompanied minors will be exempted from the order of removal when necessary to avoid undue hardship.”

One of Wu’s carers said she would give up her seat, but again they refused the offer despite the policy stating: “No one may be denied boarding against his or her will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservation willingly.”

(From left) Lam Pok-yin, Leung Hok-hin and Wu Man-hang have an easier time running through the desert than flying back to Hong Kong.

Then, a couple with a baby arrived and were admitted onto the flight. The staff said, according to the group, it was because of the minor, which seemed to take precedent over Wu’s disability.

The airline staff assured the group that Wu would be on the next flight to Casablanca so they could continue their trip together, so they left expecting to see Wu soon.

What Royal Air Maroc failed to mention, however, was the flight they booked Wu onto departed from Marrakesh, four hours away by car. Royal Air Maroc staff then put Wu in a taxi, unaccompanied, with no phone reception.

“It was really quite traumatic,” said Rachel Poon, Wu’s psychologist and running partner during the MDS. She had left the day before, confident Wu was in good hands with the rest of the group.

“[It’s] absolutely insane, I cannot see a reason for it,” Poon said. “He was quite frightened.”

Poon said on the trip to Morocco, Wu was giddy with excitement to travel so far.

“I was amazed to see his delight in everything. Even two meals. He never thought he’d travel far enough to get food twice,” she said.

Before the race, Poon had said that if the three autistic runners become alarmed, they shout and react more “severely” than most people.

(From left) Rachel Poon, Wu Man-hang, Leung Hok-hin and Lam Pok-yin training for the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker in Hong Kong.

When Wu’s taxi arrived in Marrakesh, his nightmare was far from over. The flight had left. It was clear the airline had not left enough time to travel from Ouarzazate. What’s more, the counter staff had not been informed about Wu’s impending arrival or his autism.

Wu was unable to communicate with the staff due to the language barrier and his condition. He eventually found another Cantonese speaker who helped, and managed to call his sister in Hong Kong.

She was horrified.

“This is terrible,” Elaine Wu said. “Them leaving him unattended. They said they would accompany him but left him on his own. This is the bit that really annoys me. Four hours on the road is really bad.”

She called the Qatar Airways desk in Casablanca, which initially issued the ticket and would operate the Casablanca to Doha leg, then Doha to Hong Kong legs of the journey.

She said they understood the problem and they would put Wu on a flight direct from Marrakesh to Doha.

When Wu then explained this, via a translator, to the counter staff in Marrakesh he was told it was not an option, and he needed to call his travel agency to change his ticket.

Marathon des Sables: Hong Kong psychologist takes autistic runners to desert ultra, 250km across the Sahara

Elaine Wu called Qatar Airways again and got through to the same person. But he said he could not do anything because the counter had closed for the day, that Wu would have to pay a penalty for changing his ticket from an internal flight to an international flight, and that the only solution would be to wait until the following day.

Wu was stranded for the night, but eventually made it to Casablanca where he met the rest of the group the next day.

They had waited for him and missed their connecting flight. The group had to pay for new flights to get to Doha and then on to Hong Kong.

Royal Air Maroc have been contacted and are examining the case but are yet to offer an explanation or clarification.

Qatar Airways, and senior staff members, have also been contacted but have not yet replied.

The group has also lodged formal complaints with the airlines involved.

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