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For Two Showcase Airports, Better Reviews

Photo illustration by Cecelia Wong; flight board photo by R. Ian Lloyd


Call them victims of high hopes. Both had outgrown their previous homes and insisted that their new ones be designed by internationally acclaimed architects. And when the new international airports in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong opened just over a year ago, both were beset by teething problems: lost luggage, backed-up cargo shipments, delayed and outraged passengers, red-faced and finger-pointing government officials and scathing reports in the local and international press.

In both cases, high-profile events--September's Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, July visits to Hong Kong by U.S. President Bill Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin--had led the airports' respective management teams to open before they were ready. Kuala Lumpur International Airport's June 27 opening was so chaotic that some Malaysia Airlines domestic flights had to revert to the old airport at Subang. Similarly, Hong Kong International Airport was such a mess after the July 6 launch that operations were suspended at its $1 billion cargo facility and returned to the old Kai Tak Airport for six weeks.

Three government inquiries later, Hong Kong's gleaming new hub is running smoothly, with only a few minor hiccups--like early delays on its much-praised express rail service and last October's elevator stranding of former Governor Chris Patten. Both hubs have recently received accolades: KLIA ranked third overall for business passenger satisfaction in an International Air Transport Association survey, after Helsinki and Singapore; HKIA was voted best airport in a survey by Travel & Leisure magazine, and one of the top 10 construction achievements of the 20th century by an international group of building specialists. Record numbers of holiday travelers--up to 109,000 on a single day this past Easter--have passed through Norman Foster's sweeping high-tech arches in Hong Kong with nary a glitch. In Kuala Lumpur, Kisho Kurokawa's forest-in-an-airport concept and his use of Islamic architectural details have added a note of warmth to what has become an efficient, user-friendly facility.

Still, the two airports are not out of the forest yet. Malaysia Airlines will continue to use Subang on domestic routes until a much-needed rapid transit system between Kuala Lumpur and the new airport is ready in 2002. The carrier was mortified by the discovery of rats onboard two flights departing from KLIA last year. A two-hour power failure in April--a standby generator didn't work, either--led four airlines to threaten to withdraw service from the airport. The airlines that use Hong Kong's airport are complaining about the fees they are charged--the third highest in the world, after those at Japan's Narita and Kansai airports, they argue. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Airport Authority is opening its second runway in three phases this year--a "why rush?" approach it didn't have the luxury of adopting a year ago.


June 14, 1999

Hot Tip
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Main Feature
Hong Kong and KL's gleaming new hubs are now running smoothly, with only a few minor hiccups

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