First-class airport decidedly no-frills on midnight meals, services

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2006, 12:00am

Hong Kong International Airport is deservedly proud of its numerous awards and growing traffic. Boosted by Lunar New Year, passenger numbers last month rose 15 per cent year-on-year to 3.5 million.

There were 23,100 aircraft movements for the month, up 13.7 per cent on last year.

Airport Authority commercial director Hans Bakker said demand for aviation fuel reached 14.7 million litres per day last year.

That's all very impressive, but what about fuel for the passengers? Midnight travellers struggle to find even a cup of tea airside at Chek Lap Kok. If you complete formalities around 11pm, many outlets are already winding down.

The airport authority insists that outlets are open from 7am to 11.30pm, covering 98 per cent of flights. Of the more than 40 food and beverage outlets, just Ajisen Ramen, Cafe de Coral, Popeye's and 7-Eleven are open 24 hours a day, they say.

That presumes passengers realise this - and know where to find them in the huge building. Being officially a 24-hour airport makes no difference. 'Compared to Singapore Changi, the percentage of past-midnight flights is relatively small,' the airport says.

But surely those catching the several late flights to Europe, for example, are as entitled to facilities as daytime passengers? After all, Changi, Seoul Inchon and Dubai Airport manage to provide services round the clock.

Once upon a time, if the airport facilities were shut, passengers could rely on being served a hot dinner on a long night sector but no longer. Economy passengers on the 13-hour BA28, the 1.10am service to London, now get a pastry or a sandwich instead of a hot meal. Crew advice is to 'eat plenty or you'll get hungry in the middle of the night'.

When asked about the dinner's demise, British Airways' head office repeated what is possibly the most dubious piece of market research ever: 'Customer research shows passengers prefer a light snack at the beginning of a night flight so that they can maximise their sleep during the flight.'

But BA's passengers have had enough. A few days later BA Hong Kong wrote, saying: 'With regards to the catering service you mention, customers have expressed similar feedback which we have addressed and we will be offering a hot meal on departures from March 1 onwards.'

All this nocturnal hunger raises several issues. Firstly, one of Mr Bakker's favourite sayings is that 'with no-frills airlines, we must provide the frills on the ground.'

BA was 'sorry to hear that passengers were unable to purchase refreshments at the airport but that is the responsibility of the airport operator'.

What it shows is a lack of joined-up thinking. If neither airport nor airline is providing adequate food, the result is unhappy passengers.

Another of Mr Bakker's oft-heard tenets is the authority's devotion to improving the customer experience.

A departing visitor's final and lasting impression of any country is the service they receive at the airport. Their minimum expectation is to be able to get drinks, snacks, a paperback and duty-free cigarettes and alcohol, regardless of the time of day. It doesn't matter how beautiful the airport is, what they will remember is that they couldn't buy dad's bottle of scotch.

It can be done. Seoul Inchon makes its concessionaires stay open by imposing a rota system.

'We endeavour to procure a high standard of services from the airport authority's contractors, franchisees and concessionaries,' says Mr Bakker. Well, as their landlord, the airport authority can follow Seoul's example and insist longer operating hours become part of their leases.

Safety first

Affluent mainlanders still prefer to travel within China and safety is their No1 concern. These are the results of a survey by American Express, which asked 1,200 consumers in the top 10 per cent of earners from eight cities.

A third chose the mainland as their dream destination, topping Asia at 20 per cent, Europe at 17 per cent and United States at 10 per cent. Beijing, Sanya and Guilin were favourite domestic destinations.

Respondents spent on average 3,160 yuan shopping overseas, 2,280 yuan on entertainment and 1,630 yuan on dining.

Half rated safety as their main concern, the same number as travel without a tour guide.