Charged issue

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 1997, 12:00am

Now that the United States has added its voice to the chorus of alarm from airline operators about the proposed charges when Chek Lap Kok finally opens, there is likely to be a more weighty argument about whether Hong Kong's new $156 billion airport is pricing itself out of the game even before the first flight has landed.

If the debate has got going early, this may simply be a case of the airlines planning their strategy in advance of the coming battle. Their industry is highly competitive, and extremely cost-conscious. It obviously wants to keep running expenses as low as possible. Those are traits that Hong Kong also shares, and it would be a great mistake, after all the effort and controversy over Chek Lap Kok, if the airport pitched its fees so high that carriers simply decide to go elsewhere. There is, after all, no lack of choice within a short flying distance.

Obviously, there will be increased fees at the new airport. It would be unrealistic to expect such a major project to be completed without a rise in landing costs and other charges. Hong Kong taxpayers have funded a state-of-the-art facility which has to provide a return for their investment. Moreover, the new airport offers conveniences and refinements to its users which they do not have at Kai Tak. Among these will be 24-hour landings, sophisticated weather warning equipment, improved radar, and an integrated service by which passengers will be able to check in their baggage at the MTR station instead of taking it with them to Chek Lap Kok.

These and other technological advances will enable airlines to cut down on some operating costs, so offsetting the increased charges. Indications are that the new rates will be less than double current rates at Kai Tak, but that does not mean airlines are facing a doubling of their bills. The authority claims that it will be in the middle range for fees among 20 leading airports, but that Chek Lap Kok is the most advanced in terms of facilities.

This has to be paid for, certainly. But not at the cost of goodwill and continued business. The authority must convince users they will get value for money. If it cannot do that, it may have to re-examine the pricing strategy. The airport is crucial to Hong Kong's future, and must not be allowed to fall short of expectations.