A journey to destination Hong Kong without leaving the airport

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I’ve been to Hong Kong International Airport three times in the past six days and not taken a single flight. Two of them were for PCR tests at the stark but brilliantly efficient Prenetics COVID-testing station for an at first-delayed and then cancelled overseas trip while the third was a whole lot more fun altogether.

That came last Monday when I caught up with Airport Authority Hong Kong Executive Director, Commercial Cissy Chan and General Manager Retail Portfolio Alby Tsang to get a preview not only of some exciting things to come inside the terminal but also right across the vast airport estate.

Riding high: Cissy Chan and Alby Tsang have been preparing hard for the better days that are coming soon for Hong Kong International Airport

What an estate it is. ‘From City Airport to Airport City’ runs the Airport Authority Hong Kong tagline, a neat encapsulation of the hugely ambitious ecosystem that is being developed.

It’s almost two and a half years since I last saw Cissy and many months in the case of Alby. The interim periods have been traumatic for Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) in terms of passenger numbers, which for more than two long, barren years has served a shockingly small percentage of pre-pandemic volumes. To give you an idea, HKIA attracted just 1.4 million passengers in 2021 compared to a whopping 71.5 million in 2019.

With most of the airport’s shops and restaurants closed through much of the pandemic, you could be forgiven for thinking the airport’s commercial and retail teams have been in holding mode. You could not be more wrong. They have been frantically busy, not only revamping – in fact, reimagining – whole swathes of the commercial area inside the terminal but also advancing a flurry of surrounding mega developments that will redefine the airport.

I have been through HKIA several times over recent months and each time it has been a little busier, in line with eased quarantine restrictions, a welcome though far from complete transition from the eerie ghost town I witnessed in 2020 and 2021. The big breakthrough came on 26 September this year when the inbound quarantine requirement was lifted (albeit with extensive COVID-testing measures still in place), prompting a surge in demand for outbound travel by Hong Kongers anxious to make up for lost time.

Another indicator of better times ahead as local carrier Cathay Pacific steps up its flight network {Source: South China Morning Post}

The October passenger numbers will be revealing (September’s 525,000 marked a +132.7% increase year-on-year but that’s still just 10.7% of the 4.9 million served in the same month in 2019) and certainly all visual indicators (busier flight information screens, longer check-in queues, more landside and airside openings) suggest an airport coming back to form. “It’s like a child finally coming home after a long time away,” as Alby neatly put it.

As passenger traffic continues to climb, most of the stores and F&B outlets that have not yet opened will do so from early November. Even since my last departure in late September en route to Madrid and Cannes, several more key facilities have opened, including The Shilla Duty Free main store.

A beauty to behold: Back in business at The Shilla Duty Free
The main Duty Zero by CDF has been partially open for weeks. From November it moves into full swing.

The splendid duplexes from Louis Vuitton (opening 1 November), Hermès (formerly single-storey) and Chanel will wow passengers, complementing a remodelled luxury zone featuring dazzling white tiling and a host of new offerings across the whole airport estate.

Airport Authority Hong Kong not only seeks to operate a top-class aviation hub. It also wants to make the airport (and the facilities around it) a landmark and destination in its own right. And it aims to be a growth engine, not just for Hong Kong but also of the Greater Bay area.

That three-fold approach underpins everything that is underway at HKIA. Over the course of a fascinating few hours with Cissy and Alby, I discovered aspects of the business I could not have imagined and marvelled at the levels of innovation and investment that have been going on behind the scenes.

The transformation from City Airport to Airport City embraces core passenger and cargo services, multi-modal regional connectivity , retail, hospitality and entertainment. “The Airport City will be a destination in itself”, says Airport Authority Hong Kong.

So there you have it. I may not have flown anywhere but I see a heck of a destination taking shape. Put it high on your travel agenda for next year. Hong Kong is coming back.

Interviewing Alby Tsang after our tour for an exclusive video to be shown at The Trinity Forum next week

This stunning digital screen, known as the Crystal Elevator, displays video and images that capture the essence of Hong Kong
(Above and below) The exquiste ‘Waterfall Gardens’ in the North and South Arrivals Halls synthesise the sights and sounds of nature. The digital installations each feature a cascading waterfall, flowing creeks and crystal-clear ponds.
No, I certainly cannot walk on water but for a brief moment it felt like I could

What a stunning installation this is from JCDecaux in the arrivals zone. Look at the height. Expect to see a rapid step up in brand advertising as the travel recovery accelerates.
The magnificent 200-metre long Sky Bridge connecting Terminal 1 and the North Satellite Concourse is the world’s longest airside bridge. Rising above 28 metres, the Sky Bridge is high enough to allow an Airbus A380 to pass underneath.

Cissy Chan and Alby Tsang  stand below the epic structure
Those with vertigo look away now: That’s a 28-metre drop beneath Cissy and me
Inside the vast Asia World Expo (AWE), in which Airport Authority Hong Kong became the sole shareholder earlier this year after the government transferred its interests in the conventions, sports and entertainment venue
A salient reminder that those who have prematurely given up on Hong Kong have got it wrong. The three-runway system (3RS), recently launched, gives Hong Kong International Airport the capacity to meet heavy long-term passenger and cargo demand.
A vast local transport network is taking shape, stretching as far as the new town of Tung Chung 5km away
Dubbed as a new world-class destination, SkyCity is a mega-scale commercial development designed to attract visitors to the Airport City from all over the world. It includes 11 Skies, a 353,00sq m integrated retail, dining and entertainment destination to be opened in phases beween now and 2025.
What an epic shot over the airport and to the hills and skies beyond, the latter surely soon to be be full of planes arriving to and departing from Hong Kong
Hong Kong International Airport enjoys a highly strategic location in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area

Hong Kong International is the first airport in the world to deploy driverless autonomous electric tractors (above) for baggage delivery in a live operating environment

The soon to be fully opened Integrated Airport Centre features superb staff facilities (above and below)

Like something out of a Hollywood movie but very real, this state of the art control centre oversees the entire airport ecosystem
Flight simulators form a key part of the Academy’s training modules

The Hong Kong International Aviation Academy offers brilliant facilities at its new campus that came into service in 2021. It offers a wide array of training programmes for aviation practitioners and professionals in Hong Kong and around the region.
The course range is impressively diverse and no detail is spared in ensuring that Hong Kong International Airport always operates to the highest standards. There is even a training facility for washroom attendants.
The devil is in the detail. Cleaners are trained in how to treat the different flooring tiles found across the airport estate.