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Up, Up and Away

Asiaweek Pictures.
A model of efficiency that seamlessly transports travelers to and from the city.

After a rocky opening, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok has established itself as Asia's best airport
By MARIA CHENG

There may have been some loud inaugural hiccups when Hong Kong's gleaming Chek Lap Kok international airport opened its gates in July 1998. Since then, however, the world's largest facility of its kind has gone on to dazzle millions of users.

Designed by famed British architect Norman Foster, Chek Lap Kok is a futuristic vision, featuring open-concept halls that maximize the use of natural light. But looks aren't everything. Beneath its striking design, Chek Lap Kok is a model of efficiency that seamlessly transports some 90,000 passengers to and from Hong Kong every day. That's no simple process. "It's really a wonder that everything gets done as quickly as it does," says Joe Hazeldon, assistant manager for Swire Airport Engineering, which supervises the building's operations.

For the traveler, Chek Lap Kok combines comfort and pleasure with convenience. Its airy ambience aside, the airport boasts state-of-the-art lounges and a range of other facilities. An impressive array of shops, bookstores and eateries are available. And an ultra-modern Airport Express train whisks the traveler to or from Kowloon in 20 minutes, and Hong Kong Island in 23.

The day-to-day running of Chek Lap Kok encompasses everything from security checks and refueling aircraft to feeding the 45,000 people responsible for such tasks. Some 50,000 departure bags are processed every day. Amid the miles of conveyor belts and tilt trays, which automatically direct luggage to its proper path, are 8,000 baggage cars, most of which run on electricity to minimize pollution.

It is this system that ensures that Tokyo-bound luggage doesn't end up on a flight to Auckland. From the time your precious bags enter the system after check-in, Hazeldon estimates it takes them 15 minutes to reach their destination, in most cases the airplane. The system is designed to accommodate even the terminally late: In such "emergencies," an express delivery mechanism is ready to relay your luggage to the plane in a mere 10 minutes.

The baggage, however, must pass through an extensive security system. Unlike many other major airports, Chek Lap Kok screens every single bag, rather than rely on passenger profiles. The process can involve up to five security levels. Equipped with four large machines that function like a CAT-scan, the system can handle as many as 200,000 bags per day. Among its most incriminating finds so far have been mooncakes, whose organic density suspiciously resembles that of plastic explosives. (Last week, a more alarming incident occurred when a lone gunman held hostage an airplane cleaner for nearly two hours before security personnel ended the episode without violence.)

Loading baggage is actually part of a highly organized regimen that involves fueling, cleaning and servicing the aircraft. When a plane "chalks up to," or connects with, its gate, a small army of service vehicles descends upon it. While passengers are eagerly disembarking, dozens of technicians on the ground conduct countless tasks, including service checks, replacing aircraft tires, unloading baggage and cleaning the plane's interior. "They need to move really fast to get everything done," says Eric Fong, operations-support manager for the airport's service sectors. "Sometimes the planes have to be turned around and ready to fly in less than an hour. We're talking about a process where every minute really counts."

To make sure things run smoothly on the ground, airport staff in the control center constantly monitor the 38 surveillance cameras installed throughout the premises. They are essentially Chek Lap Kok's first line of defense: any incident spotted on screen can be dealt with. It was from the control center that a China Airlines crash was first sighted in August last year. "Within seconds, our switchboard was ringing off the hook," says Christopher Donnolley, a corporate affairs officer who was on the scene.

Chek Lap Kok has also been working to improve its public image, starting with the notoriously surly immigration officials. Authorities recently launched a campaign that asks officers to greet people with a smile, and say "thank you" after inspecting their travel documents. It is intended to make the immigration line — one of Hong Kong's busiest control points — more "peaceful," according to officials.

Though an international airport is unlikely ever to be the most tranquil of places, Chek Lap Kok staff are trying to ensure that flying in and out of Hong Kong is as painless as possible. For the airport is more than a mass-transit point: It is also a barometer of the territory's efficiency. Now if only they could make jet-lag easier.

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