Up and Away
a rocky opening, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok has established itself
as Asia's best airport
A model of efficiency that seamlessly transports travelers
to and from the city.
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
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
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