Service quality key to Hong Kong's prospects as aviation hub

December 19, 2015 08:04
Hong Kong airport faces a challenge in meeting projected rise in passenger traffic without sacrificing service quality. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong has been recognized as a global aviation hub for many years thanks to the city's visionary expansion of its airport infrastructure and superb services, as well as the good reputation enjoyed by Cathay Pacific Airways.

Given the high expectations from the flag carrier, I was a bit disappointed with a recent Cathay flight that I took to Taipei.

The flight failed to take off on time -- there was a delay of almost an hour on both the outward and return journeys -- and the airline didn't serve hot tea or coffee during the flight.

The offerings in the inflight entertainment system were boring. (A flight attendant explained kind-heartedly that short flights mean that one cannot watch a full movie.)

When I landed at the Hong Kong airport after the trip, I also had to wait quite a while for my luggage.

Despite such lapses, Hong Kong airport remained the world's fourth best for the third year, and Cathay also kept its third spot, according to the 2015 Skytrax World Airline Awards.

Singapore's Changi Airport, South Korea's Incheon International Airport and Germany's Munich Airport are rated as the world's three best airports this year. The three airports have kept that crown for two years.

Hong Kong airport has been in the No. 1 spot for seven times between 2001 and 2010, while Cathay Pacific also won the top award three times during the same period.

Hong Kong has a geographical advantage, which enables passengers to travel to half of the world’s population dwelling locations within five hours, and the city also serves as the gateway to mainland China.

However, the city has lagged behind its rivals in airline arrangements, flight prices and services. Unique location alone will not be enough to help Hong Kong cement its status as the transport hub in the Asia Pacific region; service quality will also matter.

Hong Kong airport is one of the world's busiest for passenger travel and cargo transport. As of December last year, the city had signed air service agreements with 67 nations and regions. The airport can connect 180 locations worldwide, including 44 mainland Chinese cities.

More than 100 airlines operate in the airport and provide over 1,000 flights each day. Such great connectivity has enabled the city to strengthen its position as a global financial center. However, the airport faces capacity constraints.

As much HK$50 billion was spent in building the international airport, one of the world’s largest construction projects. Traffic has been expanding steadily since the new airport started operation in July 1998.

The airport had embarked on concourse and West Apron expansion and expanded its auxiliary service and cargo facilities, which cost more than HK$12 billion in recent years.

In addition, it decided to build a third runway to handle future traffic demand. IATA Consulting estimates that passenger demand will reach 102 million per year by 2030, while cargo handling is seen at 8.9 million tons and aircraft movements per year at 607,000 by the same year.

Last year, the airport handled 390,955 aircraft movements, 63.4 million passengers and 4.38 million tons of cargo.

The key question now will be whether the airport will be able to expand and meet the projected demand without sacrificing service quality.

In terms of handling capacity, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport has handled nearly 90 million passengers and 950,000 aircraft movements since 2010, making it the world’s busiest airport for more than a decade.

Hong Kong airport is the world's No.1 in cargo transport, followed by Memphis International Airport. Memphis was overtaken by Hong Kong in 2010 but remains the largest cargo airport in US.

Though Atlanta and Memphis airports have excellent capacity, they are not listed in the top 10 world airports. In fact, none of the US airports could get into the top 20.

That clearly offers a lesson: An airport can seek more passenger traffic or cargo volume, but it should not come at the expense of service quality. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 14.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Researcher of China Business Centre of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University