Airport's opening not yet in the bag

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am

With days to go until the Baiyun facility opens, airline insiders point to fears over luggage handling

Guangzhou officials have pledged a smooth opening for the Baiyun airport after final tests yesterday, but foreign airlines fear, and some airport officials hint, that baggage handling will go haywire and delay flights.

The new international airport is using the same baggage-handling system that nearly brought Chek Lap Kok to a standstill in its first week of operation.

The officials said they had contingency plans to process bags by hand if the $230 million FKI Logistex baggage-sorting system malfunctioned. The first phase of the 18 billion yuan airport, which opens on August 5, has two runways 3.6km and 3.8km long and will be able to handle 27 million passengers and 1 million tonnes of cargo a year.

Zhang Chunlin , chairman of the Guangdong Airport Management Company, said all the airport's systems were automated and 'quite hi-tech'.

'Generally speaking, the more sophisticated the system, the more likely problems would crop up,' he said. 'We are using automated systems for the first time so there are some risks involved. The risk comes from two areas - one is the software and the other is hardware.' Final testing of the systems was still going on to guarantee a successful move, failing which there were back-up measures.

'If things go wrong, after 20 minutes we will convert to manual operation,' Mr Zhang said. 'Once the back-up measures are in place, we can solve the problem in a short time - there will not be a major collapse.'

Three trial runs have been conducted so far, the first two focusing on individual systems and the last one yesterday, involving 1,400 people, being a comprehensive hands-on test for operators. That leaves 10 days for final staff training before opening day.

The manager of one major international airline in Guangzhou said he had been training his staff since last month to use the new check-in system and was prepared to go manual if there were hitches, but his main concern was the baggage-handling system.

'I see a big problem with the baggage-handling system. People at the airport are telling me that the more advanced the system, the more problems there will be,' he said. 'We are talking to our ground-handling agent [China Southern Airlines], but they are not telling me much.'

A China Southern Airlines spokesman said the airport should provide a solution if the baggage-handling system failed. A baggage handler said she had received no instructions on emergency measures to take, but that staff had been told they could not take leave when the airport opened.

Mark Nielsen, the commissioning engineer for the baggage-handling system's Danish supplier, said he did not foresee any problem. 'Everything was sorted out properly this morning,' he said.

The Yangcheng Evening News reported that one piece of luggage from a 'domestic flight' and more than 10 from an 'international flight' went astray during yesterday's trial, a big improvement from the last trial, when baggage did not even make it to the carousel.

Even if everything works properly, travellers will still face Guangzhou's notorious flight delays. Mr Zhang and airline officials said the new airport would alleviate but not eliminate the problem, which was caused by bad weather and poor deployment of aircraft.

Chek Lap Kok, which suffered organisational, mechanical and technical problems for three to five months after its opening, is unlikely to face any immediate challenges from Baiyun International Airport as it serves too few international routes.