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Then & now: protected airspace

Hong Kong has a history of minimising competition forits aviation flag carriers, despite its free-market reputation, writes Jason Wordie

 

Any new evidence of shameless, "snouts in the trough" antics from Hong Kong's legislators and government officials is not to be marvelled at, given the extent of top-level venality that has prevailed here in recent years. The aviation sector is no exception; recent junkets for individuals with influence over landing rights and conflict-of-interest allegations regarding the proposed third runway at Chek Lap Kok make this abundantly clear.

The city's premier economic fantasy maintains that the territory has always adhered religiously to free-market principles. To believers, government intervention to favour (or exclude) a particular industry or player is an unheard of economic heresy. The record from the past, as usual, paints a very different picture.

Creative attempts to minimise (or, where possible, eliminate) competition for flag carrier airlines is nothing new in Hong Kong - or anywhere else. When international air routes from Europe and North America to the Far East were pioneered and popularised in the 1930s, competing carriers such as Dutch airline KLM (which flew to the colony from Amsterdam via Batavia, modern-day Jakarta), Air France (which travelled from Paris via French Indochina, modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and Pan-American Airways (Pan Am, which departed from the West Coast of the United States) all provoked significant levels of British Empire protectionism to help safeguard Hong Kong's position in this emerging market.

Such "non-interference" was intended to protect the nascent Imperial Airways route from Britain to the Far East. Services commenced from Poole Harbour, in Dorset, England, in 1936. Sunderland flying boats took a week to reach Hong Kong, with an all-first-class service and overnight stops along the way (the planes did not fly at night).

A week to get to London may seem extraordinary to a modern travellers accustomed to 12-hour intercontinental journeys but Imperial Airways was a massive improvement on the fastest sea passages, which took at least a month to reach Europe.

Interestingly, "domestic" China aviation was relatively open at this time; then as now, minimally restricted movement between Hong Kong and its natural hinterland was economically vital to the territory's continued prosperity. To that end, both Chinese air carriers - the state-owned China National Aviation Corp and the partly German-controlled Eurasia Aviation Corp - maintained regular passenger services from various mainland cities to Hong Kong. These remained operational through the Sino-Japanese conflict - with constant disruptions and schedule changes to night flights to avoid attacks by fighter planes - from 1937 until the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, in 1941.

In a particularly egregious example of protectionism, Pan Am was, in the late 1930s, excluded from direct entry to the Hong Kong aviation market. The airline's enormous Sikorsky flying boats - the famed China Clippers - travelled in stages across the Pacific from San Francisco via Hawaii, Midway, Wake Island and Guam. But before proceeding to Hong Kong from Manila, they had to stop first at Macau.

This needless deviation - few passengers ever disembarked there - added additional time, cost and inconvenience to an already long journey, especially as the final lap across the Pearl River estuary took less than 20 minutes.

To further compound the inconvenience to Pan Am, even the aviation spirit used for refuelling had to be taken across from Hong Kong.

 

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Then & now: protected airspace

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