WHEN Dr Hank Townsend sat in the witness chair at the airport inquiry on Thursday morning, he must have been expecting the worst. After presiding over the shambolic opening of Chek Lap Kok airport and the public uproar which followed the July 6 debacle, the Airport Authority's chief executive was about to have his comeuppance. It did not take long and did not surprise those who had expected the Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport to be little more than an exercise in finger-pointing. Following a predictable few hours of being led through his evidence by the authority's own counsel, questioning was passed to Ronny Tong SC, a high-profile barrister briefed by the Government to put its case. Any hopes Dr Townsend might have clung to that the administration would stand faithfully by the side of the Airport Authority and present a united front at the inquiry were quickly dashed. As he read through minutes of the authority's board and internal meetings as well as those from a co-ordinating body chaired by Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang, it was clear the Government was ready to pin the blame on Dr Townsend's beleaguered organisation. With his precise and measured line of questioning, Mr Tong detailed a major rift between the authority and the administration over the opening date. All Dr Townsend could do was glumly sit and agree as the barrister detailed how his organisation, chaired by the China-friendly businessman Wong Po-yan, was eager for an April opening which was opposed by Mrs Chan. Reminding Dr Townsend of the authority's responsibility, mandated in legislation, to not only run a safe and efficient airport but one which was operated on prudent and commercial standards, Mr Tong drew from him an estimate that a delayed opening would cost the Airport Authority more than $1 billion. So eager was the Chief Secretary to prevent Mr Wong from pushing ahead with the planned opening date, she invited him and other board members to dinner in December where she lobbied them from putting the issue to a vote. Her efforts failed. Mr Wong put the issue to a vote in January but the six government members of the Airport Authority board abstained and an April launch was favoured. Little has so far been said in the inquiry about the MTRC's Airport Express Line, which was not due to be completed until June, a factor the Government used to justify its announcement of a delayed July 6 opening. Dr Townsend's only evidence on this crucial point was just one paragraph in his written statement that the railway service was not needed for the opening and contingency plans were developed to transport passengers, employees and sightseers to Chek Lap Kok. SUSPICIONS linger that a July launch was chosen to coincide with President Jiang Zemin's visit to Hong Kong for the first anniversary of the handover. The Chinese leader officially opened the airport a few days ahead of the start of operations. Civil Aviation Director Richard Siegel has denied in earlier evidence any political consideration in the decision to launch on July 6. Mrs Chan's motivation for driving a wedge between the authority and the Government was not clear until Friday when Mr Tong revealed Mrs Chan had serious concerns about the readiness of the airport for an April opening. She was portrayed as an official with an intricate and technical knowledge of the project as well as an inkling that all was not as well as the Airport Authority management was trying to convince her administration it was. In a letter to chairman Mr Wong, she expressed deep scepticism and urged the board to seek firm evidence and critically examine the management's assessment of its proposed opening date. Mrs Chan went on to twice reject Mr Wong's assurances that everything would be ready to go. Mrs Chan's particular concerns focused on the readiness of the flight information display system (FIDS) of which she displayed a considerable knowledge, air cargo operator HACTL and the level of staff training - all problems which arose on the disastrous July 6 opening. It was left to counsel John Griffiths SC, a former attorney general representing HACTL, to sum up the impact an April opening would have had. It would have been an unmitigated disaster, would it not? Dr Townsend replied: 'I am not sure I would use that exact term but it certainly was not expected and it was fairly serious.' Mr Griffiths pointed out that HACTL, which had serious problems meeting the launch date because of problems with its automated cargo system at Super Terminal One, had sought a soft opening involving Kai Tak and Chek Lap Kok running at the same time to take some of the pressure off the new facility. But Dr Townsend said it was not within the power of the authority to give it that option. Amid the political drama, the inquiry - before Mr Justice Woo Kwok-hing, who led the probe into the Garley Building fire disaster probe, and former Stock Exchange chairman Edgar Cheng Wai-kin - has had its lighter moments. After days of cross-examination about the integration and automation of the sophisticated flight information system FIDS, which failed at the opening, it was revealed airline staff had improvised a MIDS - a Manual Information Display System involving a white board listing flight details for passengers. The revelation by Cathay Pacific's counsel Adrian Huggins SC had the barristers and Mr Justice Woo in stitches of laughter. After his devastating cross-examination of Dr Townsend, which exposed the mishaps encountered by Cathay Pacific, Mr Huggins told the embattled chief executive that he hoped one day he would receive the recognition he deserved for his work on the new airport.