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February 2, 1999

Hong Kong Journal:

The New Hong Kong International Airport as a Milepost at 1.5 Years of this Former British Colony's Return to Communist China

by Edmund Tsang

The new Hong Kong International Airport, after a rough opening last July, has settled into steady state by the time this reporter arrived in December, 1998, one-and-a-half years after the former British colony reverted back to People's Republic of China. The HK$70 billion (US$9.1 billion) airport, built on an island supported by an infrastructure that costs another HK$85 billion (US$10.9 billion) to link it to the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula, is convenient to use and a marvel to see. The US magazine Travel & Leisure announced in the January 1999 issue that it has awarded its Annual Critic's Choice Award to Hong Kong's new airport, which many Hong Kong people hope would bolster the sagging tourism industry that was still suffering from the Asian economic crisis. "[A] streamlined space so attractive, so easy, so filled with natural light, that it just might lead travelers back to the city," the travel magazine said about the new airport.

With eight times as much space in the passenger terminal area as the airport it replaced, the congestion common at the old Kai Tak is a rare sight in the new airport. The new airport also has also fifty percent more immigration control desks and custom inspection positions, and twice as many baggage reclaim units, cutting shorter the time that visitors take to clear customs. Departure from the new airport has also been helped by an increase of one-third in the number of security screening positions.

For HK$33 (a little over US$4), a bus will take a visitor from the airport to the heart of Kowloon in Yau Ma Tei District in 50 minutes, passing along busy Nathan Road, still jam-packed with people and traffic at 11 p.m. A prominent electronic bulletin on the bus announces the names of the current and the next stops (and the hotels near the stops), which helped this native son to find his way home late one evening last December. A day-time ride on the top floor of a double- decker bus offers a spectacular view of the Tsing Ma Bridge and the Kap Shui Mun Bridge, the world's longest-span suspension bridge and the longest-span cable-stayed bridge carrying both rail and road traffic, respectively, linking the Kowloon peninsula to Chek Lap Kok island where the new airport is located.

The ride on the rail Airport Express Line takes only 23 minutes from a station in the Central District on Hong Kong Island to the airport, and costs HK$70.7 (US$9.1); from the Kowloon Station the ride takes seventeen minutes and costs HK$60 (less than US$8). Both stations offer check-in services for travelers, and there are ample luggage trolleys for easy loading and unloading from the rail platform. The seating on the rail-cars resembles the business- class section of airlines, with a video screen on the back of each seat to allow the rider to peruse flight information or duty-free shopping, and plenty of room for luggage.

A third under-the-harbor tunnel, costing HK$6 billion (US$0.8 billion), was built to link western Hong Kong Island to the Kowloon Peninsula to support the airport express rail, which cost HK$35.1 billion (US$4.4 billion) to build. Another HK$44 billion (US$5.7 billion) was spent on the public-work infrastructure, including the two bridges and a viaduct linking Kowloon to the Chek Lap Kok island, which was leveled to a height of 6 meters to serve as the site for the airport.

But the symbol of Hong Kong's business efficiency, in which eight of the ten infrastructure projects that accompanied the new airport were completed on time and within budget, was shattered by the airport opening-day fiasco.

December, 1998 found the Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport, which was appointed by Hong Kong's chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa to investigate the fiasco during opening day of the International Airport on July 6, 1998, issuing a draft report that was critical of the airport steering committee and the airport authority for ignoring calls for more time to prepare and test the support systems and to train the staff before the official opening.

But most Hong Kong citizens, including 45-year-old civil engineer Louis Mann, believe there was a lot of pressure on the government not to postpone the date that the airport would be opened to the public. "Jiang Zemin [China's president] arrived on July 1, the first anniversary of the turn-over, to officially dedicate the new airport," Mann said. "Then Bill Clinton arrived two days later and used the new airport. So government officials were under a lot of pressure to show off the new airport as a symbol that Hong Kong has not changed from a year ago."

The opening day of the Hong Kong International Airport on July 6, 1998 was a major disaster and the scene of total chaos. The computer flight information system did not work, and the staff on hand had no more idea than the passengers about departure and arrival gates. The computer for the Logistic Controls System also failed, disabling the baggage and cargo handling systems. Air cargoes had to eventually be sent back to the old airport at Kai Tak for handling.

"Passengers arriving at 8 p.m. were still in the airport at 3 in the morning waiting for their bags," Mann said. "Worse still, many of the rest rooms did not work properly, and the staff on hand were of no help because they themselves were not familiar with the layout of the airport."

December, 1998 also found the managers of Hong Kong International Airport being attacked when they agreed to reduce rents for retail shops at the airport as part of a strategy to ride out the downturn affecting most Southeast Asian economies.

According to South China Morning Post (SCMP), one of Hong Kong's two English-language daily newspapers, Johnson Ko, chairman of First International Resources, which had business concessions at the Kai Tak Airport from 1980 to 1987 and from 1990 to 1997, said the way the rents were cut at the new airport "has ruined the spirit of the tendering process in Hong Kong," and the airport authority was "encouraging poor business practice" when "they have chosen to underwrite the business risk of tenants."

James Hurley, president of duty-free giant DFS group in Asia, was also reported by SCMP to have said Hong Kong's reputation as a fair and open environment for business was hurt by the rent cut of the airport authority. "Foreign companies might be wondering they shouldn't be going into Hong Kong when they don't have the support of one of the big property developers," Hurley said.

The comments of Hurley and Ko came in a week in which a property tycoon caused a huge controversy when he said he might pull out of a multibillion-dollar project because of worries about the changes in the "political environment" and investment climate in Hong Kong.

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