A warm feeling for washing dried in the jetstream

Click to follow
Airports are supposed to be functional, not the sort of place to excite passion. Yet Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, evokes tremendous passion among the people who live here. Where else can you be decanted from a plane and, traffic permitting, reach your home or office within minutes rather than hours of leaving the airport?

Maybe it is proximity which accounts for the passion. This, after all, is the world's last remaining international airport slap bang in the middle of town. Now that it is moving far from the urban centre, many of us who love and hate Kai Tak are beginning to feel nostalgic about losing this convenience.

Kai Tak would have been even more convenient had it not been for the mind-boggling decision to ensure that the mass transit railway deliberately bypassed the airport. I am told that the chief culprit in this matter was the former Financial Secretary Sir John Bremridge who took the extraordinary view that air travellers had enough money to travel by taxi and therefore did not need to arrive by public transport.

The reality is that the airport is bursting with people, notwithstanding the lack of public transport. You cannot stop people travelling, nor can you prevent the traditional Asian insistence on greeting and seeing off passengers. Nor can even the most blase of people persuade me that there is anything quite like passing under the path of a landing jumbo jet while on the way to the office. It is a modern-day version of the excitement shared by closet trainspotters brought up in an age when there were trains worth spotting.

Pilots have to be specially trained to land at Kai Tak. It is a difficult approach, usually requiring a sharp turn before roaring on to the single runway which stretches into the harbour. Pilots say they fly so low over the urban area that they can ruffle the washing drying on nearby rooftops.

Of course, having a large airport in the middle of town is a safety hazard. The surprise is that there has never been an incident where an aircraft has even remotely touched a building outside the airport and only a very few landing accidents have occurred at the airport.

The new Chek Lap Kok airport is now slowly rising out of the water, on reclaimed land, and looks appropriately impressive on paper. It should also be more comfortable.

At least planes will be able to draw up to the terminal instead of parking some distance away because of congestion. At Kai Tak, passengers have to be crammed in the squat buses which shuttle from the aircraft to the terminal building. It is time-consuming, noisy and generally inconvenient.

On arrival the passengers embark on a long walk in the direction of unsmiling immigration officials who all appear to have failed training at the Hong Kong School of Charm but are probably no less surly than their counterparts in other countries who seem to vie with each other to see who can furnish the most hostile welcome to visitors.

There is another aspect of the old Kai Tak airport, now forgotten by many, which, I think, somehow unwittingly captured the spirit of Hong Kong.

Some six or seven years ago the terminal building was filled with school children hunched over their homework. They came to the airport because the air conditioning was strong, the lighting good and they were left alone to get on with their work outside the tiny, noisy apartments where most of them lived. Here was a perfect example of the children's determination to get ahead, finding a place which allowed them to work and pursuing their work seemingly oblivious to the distractions which surrounded them.

Unsurprisingly, the airport authorities did not view this as a shining example of Hong Kong enterprise; the children were seen as an unseemly nuisance which somehow lowered the image of the airport and so they were cleared out.

I am confident that the authorities running the new airport will be even more vigilant in stamping out anything similar, or anything which fails to convey an image of modern efficiency. So, unlike old Kai Tak, there will be little to distinguish Chek Lap Kok from any other international airport.