Tough going in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s new Chek Lap Kok international airport (HKG) was inaugurated a year and a few days after the transfer of control over the southern Chinese territory of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the People’s Republic of China. A modern airport replaced its infamous predecessor, Kai Tak – but it is now itself coming up against its limits.
«Hong Kong’s new Chek Lap Kok airport commenced operations on 6 July , with the first aeroplane, a Cathay Pacific Boeing B747-400, landing after flying in from New York.» In his usual brief and precise style our aviation editor at the time, Rolf Sulser described this milestone in international transport (see also ITJ 7-8 / 2010, page 11). Sulser, who was well-known and greatly respected far beyond the confines of his aviation circles, passed away four years ago.
6 July 1997 was preceded by several decades of daring aviation history whose images have found their way into popular culture. Who has not seen multi-engined aeroplanes approaching Kai Tak inches above the skyscrapers of Kowloon?
A key Asian hub
When Hong Kong was still a British crown colony agent 007 James Bond was also on the scene three times, in the service of Her Majesty the Queen. On 1 July 1997 the British lease agreement with China ran out, however. The budget surplus of Hong Kong was not permitted to be repatriated to Great Britain, so the colonial masters invested heavily – a total of around USD 20 billion – in a new airport, located 30 km south of the crowded centre of the metropolis. By doing so they laid the foundations for the continuing role of the special administrative region as a hub for Asian air traffic.
Goods traffic picked up gradually
But the transition between the two hubs turned out to be far less smooth than expected. The inventory of the new airport was successfully driven to the new location in a convoy consisting of more than 1,000 vehicles the night before the opening, and uninterrupted air traffic was thus ensured. «The inauguration was marred by massive problems, however. Freight and baggage handling were particularly badly affected,» Sulser wrote. The airport authority promised quick remedial action. «Unfortunately, the airport authority has not updated its hitherto well-maintained website,» Sulser complained in the next issue, referring to an internet that was still in its infancy at the time. Goods traffic that was observed to be «picking up gradually» was operating at only 30% of normal capacity by late July.
In 2010 Chek Lap Kok replaced the hub in Memphis TN (USA), the home base of express provider FedEx, as the world’s largest cargo airport. Last year it handled 4.162 million t of airfreight (up from 1.7 million t in 1997). Volumes could double by 2030, and discussions are on about how to deal with the growth. A glance at the excerpt above shows that today’s competitors (see page 15) held similar positions then.