Authority listing proposal all hot air

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2005, 12:00am

Storm clouds are gathering over the government's proposal to privatise the Airport Authority.

The consultation period for the proposal draws to a close at the end of this month, and there is a growing consensus that officials in charge of the process have not made a case for the most fundamental of arguments: why privatise?

That was certainly the opinion yesterday of Japhet Law and his colleagues at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's aviation policy and research centre.

'The case for the partial privatisation of the [Airport Authority] is not there at this time nor will it be in the foreseeable future,' Professor Law, the centre's director, told journalists at the university's downtown campus.

The message was blunt and badly needed, given that it largely echoed what everyone outside government headquarters has been thinking since the whole process began almost a year ago.

The Legislative Council last year pushed the government into consultations with the industry after officials alarmed the aviation community with assertions that the airport's user fees may have to rise 25 per cent to improve valuation prospects before listing.

The government's arguments in support of privatisation have, to be kind, evolved since it flagged its intent to privatise. But there have been mixed messages concerning the government's motivation.

While 'we are not doing this for the money' has became one official's mantra, achieving the $37 billion book value has also been set as the listing's minimum target. Some privately hoped the exercise would produce 'a much higher valuation'.

The suggestion that the government was not undertaking the exercise 'for the money' was always viewed with near universal scepticism. As was the suggestion that a listing would strengthen the authority's market discipline, given that the airport is among the world's busiest for international passenger and cargo volumes.

While it is a monopoly, it is the best-equipped and most efficient monopoly in the region, a fact that is not lost on the customers who flock to it in their millions. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' is the adage that comes to mind.

Moreover, after extending the consultation period, the government has yet to come to an agreement with the airport's users on some key issues.

According to executives with a seat at the discussion table, the age-old debate about whether revenues from retail sales at the airport should be considered when setting aeronautical charges such as landing fees remains contentious.

The airlines argue that since they are the reason travellers come to the airport, they should benefit from non-aeronautical revenues. It is a solid argument, unless you own or run an airport.

Another contentious point is what should be considered a reasonable return on investment for the Airport Authority after the listing. This will go a long way towards dictating where commercial and user fees are set.

The airlines feel that a fair return on investment would be just over 4 per cent; Morgan Stanley, the government's advisers in the privatisation process, have recommended it shoot for just over 8 per cent.

What is ironic is, given that the airlines have never had an option other than to call in on Hong Kong, the government's desire to privatise has finally given them some leverage in negotiations.

In the shadow of the Link Reit disaster, and a poorly thought out West Kowloon Cultural District debacle, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's inherited troops can ill-afford to have the well-oiled public relations machines of the local airline community harpoon the privatisation process in the court of public opinion.

But these points may all be overshadowed by a larger issue.

Arguably the most compelling reason for privatisation was that the proceeds could be used to address or alleviate the structural budget deficit Hong Kong had been suffering.

That logic, too, now lies in tatters - but in a good way.