Why Hong Kong isn’t winning the competition for air travellers

Mike Rowse says there are many things that need improving as far as improving the airport experience for locals and tourists goes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 1:50pm

Having been the first Commissioner for Tourism from 1999 to 2000, I naturally still take an interest in how incoming visitors and outgoing travellers (the Tourism Commission is responsible for both) are treated. My own recent experience on returning from a business trip to the mainland suggests there are several areas where we could improve substantially with very little effort but with considerable benefit both to locals as well as visitors from overseas.

Although I had flown out on a full service airline, the only flight I could get back at the right time was on a low cost carrier (LCC). But it was a relatively short journey, so no problem. We landed on schedule just after midnight and – as these airlines tend to do to cut costs – we taxied to a mid-field parking space rather than one of the air bridges directly connected to the terminal. That meant a short bus ride to the actual terminal but again, no problem. Plane came to a halt, seat belt sign off, we all stood up in the aisles – and there we still were, 15 minutes later, waiting for the buses.

Had our arrival and parking slot come as a surprise to everybody? Surely there had to be better coordination between the airline, the ground handling agent, and other parties than this!

Had our arrival and parking slot come as a surprise to everybody? Surely there had to be better coordination between the airline, the ground handling agent, and other parties than this! If the buses could not have been drawn up waiting for us (why not?), they should surely have been there within half a minute or so. What’s with this nonsense of waiting a full quarter hour? Who’s asleep on the job? Such a contrast with Singapore, which welcomes LCCs and gives them their own terminal.

Finally on to the terminal where such incoming travellers are unloaded near Gate 1. Up the escalators into the immigration halls, only to find that the e-channels for Hong Kong residents nearest to Gate 1 were all closed so as to economise on immigration supervisory staff. Now, it is perfectly reasonable during off-peak hours to reduce the number of staff on duty and hence close some of the channels. But why does it have to be the very channels nearest to where passengers on LCC flights (which tend to arrive in less popular time slots) – many of whom are returning locals – are brought? Why not open, and supervise, these channels instead of the ones further away?

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Now out to the taxi queue, and again there is room for improvement. Yes, there is a single queue for customers, but unless the taxis are properly marshalled they tend to stop at the first empty bay. So incoming passengers directed to bays 7 to 10 can board right away, but those in the lower number bays furthest from the taxi entry point – in particular 1 to 3 – have to wait until a taxi can’t find an empty bay earlier on and eventually condescends to come on through. Why not organise the taxi queue better, or if this is too difficult, do what the mainland airports do and only direct passengers to bays where taxis are already waiting?

What we have here is a mindset problem. All concerned are doing what is easiest for themselves, and completely ignoring the interests of the customer.

And believe it or not , the CLK situation is already miles better than the chaos at the Central end of the Airport Express. I stopped taking the train back to town after several bad experiences where of the four separate taxi queues, two were attracting 90 per cent of incoming taxis.

What we have here is a mindset problem. All concerned are doing what is easiest for themselves, and completely ignoring the interests of the customer. To break the cycle we need the Airport Authority, tourism authorities and the relevant trades to approach every aspect of the experience from the traveller’s perspective. Remember guys, this is a competition for business, and right now we’re not winning.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk