Going through Incheon International Airport recently, Derek heard the opinion of a Korean pilot that Incheon is the best designed airport in the world. Incheon, of course, is fairly new and pretty nice, but living in Hong Kong, one develops quite an appreciation for the sheer simplicity and beauty of design and, moreover, efficiency of Hong Kong International Airport. No other busy airport in the world feels so spacious and relaxed, and for no other airport its traffic capacity is it easier to get from city to airport to gate. The public transportation is seemless (no need to take even an escalator from leaving Airport Express through check-in and immigration), and immigration (for residents, both local or expat) automated through biometrics.
It is worth noting, though, the patriotic pilot’s complaint—Hong Kong airport, for all its otherwise streamlined passenger flow, forces everyone to walk through a mall between immigration and the gates. Now, I will acknowledge that most airports do this in some form. After all, the government, in building and operating an airport, needs to generate revenue through leasing, and some amount of restaurants and shopping is an expected amenity for travelers. But what makes Hong Kong somewhat unusual is that not only do stores line a hallway that you would otherwise walk along, but the route to your gate seems designed slightly to confuse and visually lead you to as many stores as possible.
Terminal 2 of HKIA takes this to a new level. When I started seeing signs go up for Terminal 2, I was a bit puzzled because I didn’t recall seeing extensive construction at the airport. But I was relatively new to Hong Kong, and so who was I to say that HKIA was not in the midst of a big expansion project—it would certainly makes sense if it were opening a new terminal, given that air traffic in Asia will no doubt explode over the coming decades. When Terminal 2 opened, I noticed that it was sometimes referred to as SkyPlaza, to distinguish its retail offerings from Terminal 1’s SkyMart. But that didn’t seem remarkable either. Nor did it seem odd that Terminal 2 only serviced three airlines—the international budget Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, Qantas-owned Singapore-based budget JetStar Airways and Emirates.
Flying Emirates this weekend to Bangkok, I as a slight public works junky was excited to check out Terminal 2. The first sign that something was wrong was when we saw that there were only three rows of check-in counters (N, P and Q), compared to Terminal 1’s 10 (A-K, no I). The few check-in counters seemed like an afterthought, lost in a sea of stores, in the place, say, Sunglass Hut would be in an American mall (all of the blue boxes in the picture below being retail). The final answer came to us as we approached our gate. HKIA has a little train that goes from the area after immigration and security to the more distant gates. Terminal 2 also has a train after immigration and security, which goes to “All Gates, 1-80.” It hit us then that Terminal 2 is not an entire terminal at all, in the sense of, say, JFK or most airports in the world, where each terminal is a sort of self-contained mini-airport, which its own check-in counters and gates, nor is it like the Concourses/Satellites of Sea-Tac Airport, which are in essence sets of gates fed by a unified set of check-in counters. No—Terminal 2 is a shopping center, which happens to have a few check-in counters moved from Terminal 1, along with immigration and security, which then is connected by train to the gates in Terminal 1.
Unlike other frauds, there are no victims here, but for perhaps the tenants of Terminal 1, whose precious foot traffic is being rerouted through the Terminal 2 SkyPlaza. The Terminal 2 tenants knew what they were getting into (though I can’t imagine that the 4D Extreme Screen Cinema is going to do very well). It’s a minor inconvenience for passengers of the budget airlines (Emirates operates as a quasi-budget airline in Hong Kong, at least with respect to the HKG-BKK runs), but the whole process is still pretty efficient.
That said, isn’t something happening here that is violating decency? Isn’t there enough shopping in Hong Kong, what with each subway station serving as a sort of mini-mall, often connected to a big mall? Even at the linguistic level, Terminal 2 is wrong, as it’s not a terminus at all—your flights always “terminate” in Terminal 1, which contains all of the arrival facilities. Does Terminal 2 even create extra capacity for the airport?