One evening last week, a mainland businessman who is a frequent flyer arrived at Hong Kong International Airport.
After 40 minutes of arrival rituals following the landing at 10 p.m. – he had to climb down an airstair from the plane, which was parked on the tarmac, board a shuttle bus filled with the pungent smell of aviation fuel to the terminal, queue for immigration and wait for his baggage – he decided to feed himself before spending another hour on a bus to his downtown hotel.
He picked fried beef noodles at a new restaurant in the arrival hall operated by local chain Tai Hing and was shocked when asked to pay HK$85 for the meal.
The dish wasn’t bad but surely wasn’t worth the price. And he was charged HK$15 for an extra bowl of rice.
He told me he once dined at a Tai Hing restaurant in the city, and the same dish didn’t cost that much.
“The airport’s ‘downtown price’ guarantee is a joke,” he said.
This contrasted sharply with the lovely dish of fried noodles he bought at a thematic food kiosk at Singapore’s Changi Airport before his flight that afternoon. That dish cost him S$2.50 (HK$14).
He said he also missed Changi’s helpful customer ambassadors, its kinetic sculptures, public lounge, mini gardens and smoking areas.
Chek Lap Kok airport has none of these.
Changi Airport clinched its 500th best airport award recently, a feat trumpeted by the banners that plaster the airport’s advertising space.
While Changi is stepping up the construction of its futuristic Project Jewel, a massive 10-story glass terminal with indoor waterfall and gardens slated to be operational by 2018, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong is already overstretched with its controversial, hugely expensive third runway project, which is still up in the air, and thus may not have any energy left to think about enhancing passenger services.
Still, any frequent flyer can come up with a plethora of complaints.
Having traveled between HKIA and Changi several times and talked to some passengers along the way, let me offer some practical suggestions inspired by Chek Lap Kok’s long-time rival.
1. Introduce more affordable food kiosks, not boutiques
In its restricted areas, Changi has several food kiosks selling mainly Southeast Asian cuisine and other light refreshments.
Prices seldom exceed S$10.
Catering at Hong Kong airport is entirely dominated by chain restaurants and cafes.
Dishes are sold at a fat markup — a simple set meal of Yeung Chow fried rice with a drink can cost up to HK$90.
In his budget speech in February, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah broached the idea of bringing food trucks to the city.
Perhaps there is no better place than Chek Lap Kok for a trial introducing local favorites to global travelers.
While Changi reserves retail space for individually operated restaurants and kiosks, Chek Lap Kok has a taste for upmarket brands: it let out newly added two-story shop space in the main departure concourse to Chanel and Rolex last year.
That could have been used to bring more diverse, economical dining options catering to all passengers.
2. Have 24-hour catering services and public lounges
The airport authority likes to brag that Chek Lap Kok never sleeps – as a major aviation hub it runs 24 hours a day.
Yet if you are unfortunate enough to have to lay over at the airport during the wee hours, you won’t find anywhere to satisfy your hunger or shop for necessities, as almost all the stores are closed by 11 pm.
Mc Donald’s may be the only restaurant that is still open, and don’t be fooled by the airport’s website, which claims that Café de Coral and Ajisen Ramen also operate overnight.
From personal observation, they don’t.
Changi has a designated 24-hour food court.
It also has an all-day lounge open to all passengers.
Those who visit the Dubai airport will also be impressed by its wide array of vibrant 24-hour shops.
3. Install flight info self-service terminals
Flight info display panels are easy to find and signage is clear at Chek Lap Kok, yet browsing rows of flight info to pinpoint your exact boarding gate still takes time.
Near the display panels at Changi, there are terminals and touchscreens that passengers can use to search for information on their flights, in particular the boarding time and the gate.
They can search either by flight code, airline or destination, or simply scan the QR code on the boarding pass.
4. Create more fun attractions
Many air travelers love Hong Kong airport’s sleek, spacious terminals, with their vast glass curtains and bright architectural elements.
The interior design of the terminals at Changi is somewhat inconsistent, a result of their separate development over the decades.
Chek Lap Kok’s 570,000 square meter Terminal 1 is iconic and airy, with a laudably efficient layout and facilities, but the huge terminal lacks attractions for those who need to spend hours between flights.
Terminal 2 has an IMAX theatre, an aviation exhibition hall and a paid observation deck, but they receive lukewarm patronage owing to their remote locations.
Changi has impressive kinetic rain sculptures and other art installations in all its major halls.
There are altogether seven free-to-visit mini gardens inside its three terminals, the most notable one being the Butterfly Garden in T3.
A round on the Xboxes, PS3s or Guitar Hero in T2’s free gaming zone offers a nice diversion.
And there is a free movie theater nearby.
Passengers who spend more than S$10 can enjoy a free slide on a four-story-high stainless steel tube.
5. Organize free city tours for transit passengers
Changi offers a free, five-hour tour to the city’s major attractions for transit passengers.
Passenger flow is carefully coordinated to ensure no one will miss a connecting flight.
To take part in one of the tours, just talk to any of the uniformed service ambassadors equipped with iPads who can be seen in the airport’s major halls.
Hong Kong airport has no such complimentary tour.
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