Ayear on and the big problem at Chek Lap Kok is not one anyone would have predicted during last July's chaotic opening. The airport has now been functioning ultra-smoothly for so long that this long since ceased to be newsworthy. In fact, passenger operations returned to normal within a few days of opening. But the cargo chaos dragged on for much longer. And the three inquiries into what went wrong kept the issue alive until early this year. Now the problem is a very different one - lack of money. After all the years spent emphasising Hong Kong's desperate need for a new airport, no one could ever have envisaged that its biggest headache would turn out to be generating enough revenue to cover its costs. That is largely due to Chek Lap Kok having had the misfortune to open in the midst of Hong Kong's worst recession for more than a decade. The result has been a $400 million loss during the first nine months of operations and projections of continuing deficits for up to five more years. This poses a severe problem for the Airport Authority, the statutory body charged with running Chek Lap Kok at arms' length from the Government. With the $50 billion cost of the project having to be written-off over 50 years, it faces a huge depreciation burden. Worse still, it should soon start paying dividends to the Government. Arguably the authority is already in breach of its statutory obligation to operate in a 'commercial and prudent' manner. It has been trying to comply, slashing costs by more than 10 per cent over the past year. But almost a third of its budget lies outside its control, as it consists of payments to government departments. This is in return for services provided at Chek Lap Kok, such as air traffic control and weather information. Such departments are reluctant to cut their charges. And senior civil servants have proved unable, or unwilling, to lean on them to do so. Now an even greater threat to the airport's financial viability is looming. The high-profile lobbying by the airline industry, against the allegedly high level of landing fees, looks close to victory. Not surprisingly, given its financial position, the authority has fought vigorously against this. As half its revenue comes from landing fees it would be hard hit by any reduction. This fierce argument has seen both sides manipulate the statistics to suit their purposes. These can be used to show that Chek Lap Kok is either the third most expensive airport in the world, or the 11th, depending on the point of view being advanced. But the debate is fast becoming irrelevant since there is increasingly little doubt about its outcome. Under pressure from the airlines, the Economic Services Bureau began hinting some months ago that it favoured a cut in landing charges. Headed by Stephen Ip Shu-kwan, it is supposed to protect the airport's interests within Government, but is sometimes accused of giving these a relatively low priority. Unlike the authority, it would not have to live with financial consequences of any reduction. But even the authority is now moving in the same direction. Speaking in the past few days, chairman Victor Fung Kwok-king has promised an announcement by September. Chief executive Billy Lam Chung-lun has hinted at selective reductions for flights on new routes or at off-peak hours. If implemented, this will put to the test the airline industry's argument that it is high landing charges which are holding them back from increasing services. But it will also deal a further blow to Chek Lap Kok's already unhealthy financial position. The Government may offer an olive branch, such as waiving dividend payments. Nonetheless lack of money looks likely to remain the airport's biggest headache for many years to come.