The deadly bus crash that killed five and injured more than 30 in Tsing Yi raised what's probably a common industry practice in which non-franchised bus operators have been carrying workers to work without a proper permit.
Following the fatal collision, the Transport Department revealed Kwoon Chung Bus did not have the endorsement to transport workers when its vehicle took airport staff to work, though the operator was licensed for hotel customers, students and contract hire services.
Nonetheless, the department stopped short of saying whether Kwoon Chung had been operating illegally. As Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung reiterated, an investigation was underway. It would appear that even officials aren't absolutely sure if Kwoon Chung had been operating the airport workers service illicitly. Could it be a matter in the gray area?
Obviously, none on Friday's deadly journey were hotel customers or students. Was the trip regarded as a contract hire service in the absence of a license to carry employees to their workplace?
If that's the case, it would be a matter of concern. The parent company, Kwoon Chung Bus Holdings Ltd, is a leading player in the trade, listed on the stock exchange. Its official website boasts its bus fleet has been providing residents and cross-border services on fixed schedules.
As far as non-fixed schedule services are concerned, its description of business apparently contradicts the Transport Department's account. In addition to students, tour and contract hire services, it expressly says it also provides service to workers.
While I'm confident Secretary for Transport Frank Chan Fan will be able to clarify the situation very quickly, the discrepancy doesn't speak well for the authorities.
The question has raised an immediate issue. Kwoon Chung is one of the biggest non-franchised bus service providers here, and its fleet carries numerous workers to work day and night. Was the route involved in the crash the only route not endorsed, or was it indeed all other routes to work places that aren't properly licensed either?
What could that mean if it was the case? Will it be asked to stop not only its airport workers service but other similar services too until the matter is clarified, which is bound to have an impact on the daily routine of many people?
Then, there's the issue of insurance protection. Would the lack of a proper endorsement invalidate Kwoon Chung's insurance coverage? In particular, were the Cathay Pacific employees and other victims in the crash appropriately insured? It's unimaginable that hundreds of commuters are left to face the risk.
Commenting on the case, Cheung told reporters those affected may bring civil lawsuits, or make claims on third-party insurance if they were not liable under labor laws. The minister's comment offered little reassurance.
There have been a number of high-profile accidents involving franchised and non-franchised bus operators, and the Transport Department has worked to improve- though not yet satisfactorily- the safety of franchised bus services.
As transport officials meet with representatives from the non-franchised sector, they should go in with a view to putting the non-franchised services on the proper track.