Hong Kong airport scrambles to process flight backlog after Typhoon Hato; will operate extra runway through the night
Long lines at airport and on public transport around the city as Hong Kong picks up the pieces after storm
Hong Kong International Airport was on Wednesday night scrambling to handle a backlog of flights left by Typhoon Hato, operating both its runways through the night instead of one as per normal.
The storm prompted the Hong Kong Observatory to issue its highest typhoon warning, a No 10 signal, earlier in the day, which was later downgraded to No 8 at 2.10pm and No 3 at 5.10pm as the storm moved farther away from the city.
The No 10 warning indicates hurricane force winds above 118km/h and gusts exceeding 220km/h are expected.
Flights finally started to depart and arrive from the Chek Lap Kok airport at around 5pm. The signal was lowered to No 1 at 6.20pm.
The Airport Authority said 480 flights had been cancelled as of 5pm on Wednesday, ruining the travel plans of thousands of passengers.
“The two runways at the airport will operate overnight. The Airport Authority and its service contractors will send more staff to assist passengers,” said Chapman Fong, the authority’s general manager for Terminal 1.
Normally one runway is closed overnight for maintenance.
The authority said the airport would handle about 600 departing and arriving flights between 5pm on Wednesday and 6am on Thursday.
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon, Hong Kong’s flagship airlines, cancelled about 320 flights scheduled to take off or land between 6am and 5pm on Wednesday. The carriers said they would have a total of 108 flights departing overnight.
Hong Kong Airlines cancelled 32 flights before departures and arrivals gradually resumed on Wednesday afternoon. The airline said 45 would be handled during the night.
At the airport, there were long lines of desperate travellers waiting to check in.
Robelta Sala, her husband Ivan Canali and their daughter were sitting on their suitcases, looking tired. Their Air France flight back to Italy had been delayed for almost 17 hours, from 11.35am on Wednesday to 4am on Thursday.
“We never expected to encounter a typhoon,” Canali said. “It’s our first time seeing one. We come from Italy and there are no typhoons there.”
Canali said they had arrived at the airport around noon without knowing how long their flight would be delayed, and had walked around a little but had mostly been sitting and waiting.
“We don’t know what else we can do,” Sala said.
Jun Tetangco, a former mayor of the Philippine city of Apalit in the country’s Pampanga province, was waiting for his flight with eight friends. Their Cebu Pacific plane to Clark International Airport had been delayed from 7.30pm on Wednesday to 3.50am the next day.
“We only received an email from the airline about the delay after we arrived at the airport,” he said. “We are stranded here. But at least our flight is not cancelled. It’s a typhoon and nobody can do anything about it.”
But Tetangco said Hong Kong was more efficient than the Philippines on typhoon arrangements.
Kim Wu, from Taiwan, said her Cathay flight back home had been delayed from 6pm to 8pm. She said she and her four friends had set off for the airport at about 2pm, taking the Airport Express, but had waited two hours each at Lai King and Tsing Yi stations due to service suspensions.
“The MTR Corporation was quite nice and gave us water,” Wu said. “When the train started moving again all the people waiting there were really happy and relieved.”
Airport Express services were suspended until 5.10pm, forcing many people to take an alternative train to Tung Chung and then a bus to the airport.
At about 5.30pm, hundreds of passengers were seen queuing up outside Tung Chung station waiting for airport buses, with some saying they had been waiting half an hour.
In the five hours during which the No 10 storm signal was hoisted, no flights left Hong Kong and only one landed.
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight KL887 from Amsterdam landed in Hong Kong at 10.33am despite strong winds.
According to data from the Observatory analysed by Hong Kong pilot Jeremy Tam Man-ho, flight KL887 was facing headwinds when the pilots were trying to land, but those winds were not unfavourable for landing.
“It would have been difficult to land if the flight was facing crosswinds. The real problem was after landing the plane – you needed people to get the air bridge ready and open the door. If the wind is too strong it is possible you can’t even open the door,” said Tam, who is also a Civic Party member of Hong Kong’s legislature.
Wind speed over the airport’s airspace was 80km/h to 113km/h, which Tam said was strong. But he said what really determined whether a pilot could land a plane was the direction of the wind. He added that visibility had been 1.7km, which was “acceptable”. Visibility on the runways was between 500 metres and 800 metres, Tam said.
“There was no reason not to try and land. It was not a rash decision,” he said.
KLM said in a statement that the pilots had “no problems landing the plane” and the aircraft had been filled up with extra fuel in case of any diversion to another airport.
“Safety is our highest priority, we never compromise on that,” the airline said. “The KLM flight landed before the wind reached its peak.”