Bumpy landings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 December, 1998, 12:00am

Beset by technical problems and hampered by the economic crisis, it was merely a matter of time before Chek Lap Kok suffered the ultimate blow of losing a client.

High charges were not the only reason the Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) decided to cut its connections with Hong Kong, but they were certainly a significant factor.

SAS may not be the only airline to pull out. The financial crisis was unforeseen when the Airport Authority fixed its fees. Even then, when it was assumed that Chek Lap Kok would establish itself as one of the world's most efficient airports, there were murmurings from the industry that rates were painfully high.

Round-the-clock operating and a second runway, which were said to justify the charges, have yet to materialise. And after Singapore opted to reduce charges at Changi, rates at Chek Lap Kok looked even more unrealistic.

The authority's argument that lowering fees will shift the burden from business to the taxpayer is hardly persuasive when the alternative appears to be a greater loss of revenue if other airlines decide to follow SAS's example.

In September, a judge ruled that the case had merit if 10 airlines went ahead with a legal challenge against moves to bring in controversial new fees. The consortium has until April to decide on court action, but it should not have to come to that.

If the authority drops its determination to make Chek Lap Kok pay its way from the outset - clearly a losing battle in the current climate - it may avert another impending crisis. That policy began before the handover, when deteriorating relations between China and Britain led to suspicions that the airport project would drain Hong Kong of its fiscal reserves. This has become something of a fixation, yet the facts are that higher charges are damaging the economy.

Redundancies at Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company have cost 352 jobs, directly as a result of the high rates.

After such a difficult beginning, it is important that Chek Lap Kok is able to build a reputation for efficiency and service which surpasses Kai Tak, so it remains a regional hub despite competition from airports on the mainland and in Macau and Singapore.

When the crisis is over, the airport can begin to pay its way. Until then, airlines need a helping hand. If that hand is extended now, it will pay future dividends. Air travel is a growth industry, and Chek Lap Kok must remain at the forefront. It must not price itself out of the race.