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Hong Kong Airport Spreads Wings Despite China's Official Resistance : Asia: Planes must land and take off over a forest of apartment buildings, an approach so hazardous that pilots must qualify for a special endorsement on their licenses. But all this will soon change for the better.

January 02, 1994|STEVE RAYMER | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

HONG KONG — Many of the 22 million passengers who land at Kai Tak International Airport every year feel as if they've just auditioned for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team.

Incoming planes flying the colors of more than 50 international airlines take aim at Checkerboard Hill, a steep outcropping painted red and white to aid navigation into this British island colony.

With the low peak in sight, pilots make a gut-wrenching right turn seconds before touchdown on Kai Tak's short runway.

On Nov. 3 an incoming China Airlines jumbo jet carrying 296 passengers skidded off the rain-slick runway and landed in Hong Kong Harbor. Twenty-three people were reported injured.

It was the worst accident at the airport since a Chinese plane went off the runway in 1988, killing six. The worst accident in Kai Tak's history occurred in 1967, when a Thai airliner plunged into the harbor, killing 24 people.

Intensifying the airport's danger, planes must land and take off directly over a forest of high-rise apartment buildings, one of the most densely populated square miles on Earth.

In the flight path live more than 340,000 people who can look out their apartment and automobile windows into the cabins of passing airliners.

So hazardous is the approach into Kai Tak that pilots must qualify for a special endorsement on their licenses.

But all this is about to change. Kai Tak, now the third-busiest cargo airport and fourth-busiest passenger airport in the world, will close in four years.

Despite a diplomatic standoff with Beijing, Hong Kong is moving ahead with plans to build a new airport, part of a $21-billion development program. The plan's ultimate purpose is to ensure that Hong Kong remains Asia's No. 1 financial center and southern China's main port.

An army of construction workers already is filling in the South China Sea immediately off Lantau Island, building a 3,000-acre platform for the new Chek Lap Kok Airport, which is expected to open in 1997.

A high-speed railroad and expressway on the world's longest suspension bridge will link the new airport with Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island.

"The world is queuing up to lend us money," said Paul Brown, an official of the Hong Kong Airport Core Program. "Everyone wants a piece of the action."

Everyone, that is, but China, which will gain sovereignty over the colony in 1997.

So far, authorities in Beijing have balked at helping finance the new airport and nine other development projects in Hong Kong. The projects include freeways, rail and subway lines, a new town and reclaimed land the size of 700 football fields, on which housing for 90,000 people would be built.

The impasse has left the development scheme in a twilight zone.

But work is proceeding on projects that don't need China's approval. They include the airport platform and the 4,518-foot-long Tsing Ma suspension bridge, which will be 318 feet longer than San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, now the world's longest.

Two-thirds of all the dredges in the world, including half of the largest ones, have assembled in the waters off Hong Kong to start the massive landfill operation.

But China says the construction is too grandiose and will erode the wealthy colony's financial reserves. Chinese officials maintain that Hong Kong's riches should be left intact until after 1997.

Hong Kong authorities reject these arguments, citing "greed and democracy factors" as the reasons Beijing has withheld support for such projects as a new tunnel under the city's harbor and a new downtown terminal for the airport rail line.

"The Chinese see private investment as loans, and they don't want the debt," Paul Brown said. "We suspect the Chinese have plans to get their hands deep in the cash register."

Beyond that, Hong Kong authorities say, the Chinese are furious about the continued efforts of the colony's popular and outspoken governor, Chris Patten, to increase the legislature's democratic base before 1997. Chinese-language newspapers issue almost daily denunciations of Patten, his plans and his government.

"Officially the Chinese deny linkage," said Mark Pinkstone, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government. "But every time we talk about giving Hong Kong more democracy, the Chinese find an excuse to muck up the airport negotiations."

Hong Kong officials say that China's reluctance to help pay for the airport construction projects won't jeopardize their completion.

"All of the $21 billion will be spent by 1997, when the first runway at Chek Lap Lok opens," Brown said. "But because of the Chinese impediments, the work, using private capital, is going to be much more costly."

Difficulties with Chinese politicians, however, aren't Hong Kong's only problem.

The colony faces competition from a recently opened airport just across the Chinese border in Shenzhen and from new airports being built in the nearby Portuguese colony of Macau, in Osaka, Japan, and near Seoul, South Korea.

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