THE harassed young mother arrives by bus with luggage and two small children. There are no designated bus-stops and no in-car announcement explaining where to alight for each airline. Her heart sinks. The bus stops at the first available point along the long drop-off area in front of the terminal. So she stacks the bags and the younger child on a trolley and wanders in at the nearest entrance. The French have a phrase for a station concourse or an airport waiting hall: they call it the hall of lost footsteps. It might have been coined specifically for the vast public areas at Chek Lap Kok. Lost already, the young family finds itself opposite counters B and C, the check-in desks for Cathay Pacific. Displays on the wall above them give only Cathay departure times. They meander slowly across the lounge until they find the display, several check-in desks further along and unsignposted, telling them where to queue for their airline. It uses only two-letter airline codes. They are flying Thai Airways. By the time the woman works out Thai is TG, she is nearly hysterical. By now one child is crying and the other needs to go to the toilet. With no moving walkways their mother abandons her search for the right counter and heads for the toilets. They smell. She is probably lucky she does not have to use the gents, where there are pools of urine on the floor. It is some time since the toilets were cleaned. Meanwhile, a business traveller has missed his flight. It is his fault, not the airport's. He spends a few minutes looking around the terminal, admiring its light, airy feel, but slightly disappointed at the lack of decoration. The white metallic panels which serve as internal walls are almost oppressively bland. From the unrestricted area, he cannot even watch aircraft taking off or landing. He makes a mental note. 'Don't come to the airport for the view.' But he is getting tired pushing a trolley. He sees an illuminated sign to the Airport Hotel and, rather than head back to the city, he decides to book in for the night. He picks up his bags and follows the sign. Downstairs, in the arrivals area, another passenger has the same idea. He follows a similar sign. They wander out into the sunlight - only to find the hotel will not open until October. Airport Authority spokesman Chris Donnelly said there had been no complaints so far about the hotel signs, but added: 'If it becomes a problem, we'll cover them up.' Welcome to Hong Kong International Airport, a calendar month after its official opening by President Jiang Zemin and at the end of four weeks of full operation. Among the many millions of words used to explain the terminal's dramatic layout, the phrase 'an airport designed for people' sticks in the mind as among the more inappropriate. Despite all the airport criticisms since it opened for business on July 6, the little things that make an airport user-friendly are still not fixed. Great trains of luggage trolleys menace travellers, as staff struggle to push them up the ramps to the forecourt. Passengers gingerly negotiate their way down the same ramps as they try to keep their own luggage-laden trolleys under control. The telephones are now all said to be connected and functioning. But signposting is still inadequate and confusing. Even finding the bus stops for journeys into town causes problems for some. Seventy billion dollars of public and private money went into building the airport platform, the runways, and the passenger and cargo terminals. A further $34 billion went into the airport railway. Billions more were spent on tunnels, bridges and expressways to make the remote site accessible from the centre of town. Sir Norman Foster's beautiful glass terminal was to be the crowning glory of the whole $155 billion project. As late as July 6, the public and the media were prepared to give the airport the benefit of the doubt. The overnight move from Kai Tak had gone perfectly, although subsequently there were suggestions it might have contributed to later computer breakdowns. The first flight came in from America at 6.20am. It was the first ever non-stop commercial flight from New York to Hong Kong over the North Pole. Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Cathay Pacific chairman Peter Sutch and a clutch of other bigwigs were on hand to greet it. The airport had opened in time to dispel the pan-Asian economic gloom of 1998 - then it all started to go wrong. Luggage went missing. Flight information screens went blank. Pilots, confused over parking arrangements, were left waiting on the apron with passengers aboard. Air-bridges were in the wrong places and there were not enough staff to operate them. The baggage handling system refused to give up its suitcases. Escalators broke down. Of the airport's 350 payphones, 200 were not working. One family from China was stranded at the airport for three days after missing their flight, with no money for food and nothing to drink but water. MANY of the problems were interrelated, linked to a problem with the flight information system at the core of the operation. Among the most worrying was the failure of the airport's system for matching passengers with their bags, designed to ensure no plane left with luggage aboard when the passenger had been left behind. This was a breach of global security rules, brought in at airports worldwide after the Lockerbie bombing. So much for Mrs Chan's claim: 'I can claim categorically that the safety standards of the new airport have not been compromised and will not be compromised.' But the chaos on the passenger side, grim though it was for the first few days, was nothing to the situation in the main cargo terminal. Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminal (HACTL), which handles 80 per cent of air freight, suffered computer and mechanical breakdowns which, four weeks on, are still not fully resolved. Secretary for Economic Services Stephen Ip Shu-kwan told the Legislative Council last week that by the time a recovery plan was complete, the cargo debacle would have cost about $4.6 billion - or 0.35 per cent of gross domestic product. Almost 60 per cent of that would be borne by small and medium-sized businesses. That could cover anything from live-food importers to freight forwarders and garment exporters. The most vocal complaints at the height of the chaos came from the freight forwarders. Two small firms were reported to have folded. Others feared they, too, might go out of business. But Anthony Lau Siu-wing, of the Hong Kong Freight Forwarding Association, said the airlines would 'probably lose more money than the forwarding industries'. Things, however, are now looking up. HACTL is recovering slightly ahead of its original schedule and has slowly increased the service to passenger aircraft. It is hard to tell if the cargo disaster has had any long-term effect on Hong Kong's traffic. In the short term, said Cathay Pacific spokeswoman Jemma Moore, some cargo had gone via alternative airports. Whether that business returns to Hong Kong will depend on price and handling efficiency. The Airport Authority, keen to paint the best picture possible now the worst is over, happily reports most flights are now leaving on time or within 15 minutes of schedule and average passenger waiting time for baggage is about 14 minutes. And yet for months to come, a dark cloud will continue to hang over all those involved in the planning and operation of the new airport. Already, Airport Authority chairman Wong Po-yan has publicly apologised for the disaster and said he will not seek to extend his term when it expires in November. The public is unlikely to be satisfied with that. However, the finger-pointing and buck-passing of the first few days have been knocked sharply on the head by the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry under Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing, who has made it plain he will not tolerate public discussion which may prejudice or influence witnesses. That is a pity. If there was a silver lining to the whole sorry mess, it would be the realisation that the public, whose money paid for the airport, is now owed an explanation. The lack of transparency before the airport came on stream, and the assumption by those in charge that they were best placed to know what was good for Hong Kong, made informed discussion impossible. Mr Justice Woo's comments quickly put a cap on any openness and will limit the media's scope to report. But it will not stop Legco's parallel inquiry, which also has broad powers to summon and interview witnesses. And Ombudsman Andrew So Kwok-wing has launched another inquiry of more limited scope. In the end, although some of those at the centre of the storm may by then have left the SAR or moved on to other jobs, chickens will come home to roost when the Woo commission and Legco arrive at their conclusions. In the meantime, smaller problems at the airport are bound to crop up. Rats, for instance, had a field-day when workers dumped their lunch boxes at construction sites, especially at the ground transportation centre. They will be hard to keep under control. And, back in the terminal, where our young mother has finally got past the check-in desk and is heading for Immigration, there is another problem. Not a big one, but one that will cost a bit of money to sort out. The slightly misty panels separating the check-in lounge from security and passport control are supposed to be white and opaque. There are similar panels in the arrivals hall, intended to make it harder for suspicious-looking passengers to spot the Customs officers watching their movements. Unfortunately, those panels are not opaque, either. They would be, if they were lit from the side. But they are top-lit, which spoils the effect. An even bigger headache awaits the security system come the Mid-Autumn festival. For check-in baggage, Chek Lap Kok has done away with the old-fashioned business of X-ray machines and is using computerised checkers instead. These machines do not look for guns or knives, which are unlikely to cause much problem once they are safely packed in the hold. They look for substances with the consistency of plastic explosives - by X-ray and by smell. Last winter, a similar hi-tech, $179-million system at Manchester airport went on the blink when hundreds of tourists headed for Mallorca and the Costa Brava with Christmas puddings packed in their suitcases. Plum puddings? Semtex? Just the same to a computerised security checker. Wait till it sniffs out a box of mooncakes.