Will Hong Kong airport see its status among the world’s busiest hubs descend even further, when the city’s political storm continues to scare away visitors and when its rivals in the region aim to scale new heights with new facilities, subsidies and routes?

Hong Kong Airport Authority said in early September that the three-month-long protest and turmoil engulfing the city –  the airport terminal itself has repeatedly been the stage of fierce skirmishes between protesters and police that have snarled air traffic – had taken its toll on aviation as less than six million flyers passed through the airport in August. Traditionally the peak month of travel, traffic was down 12.4% over a year ago.

That means Hong Kong has already been surpassed by Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, which booked a new record in monthly passenger throughput of six million during the same month, according to data compiled by global airlines trade body International Air Transport Association. Shenzhen Airport across the border also saw a 9.2% increase in total traffic to 4.7 million.

The two cities in neighboring Guangdong province have started to benefit from Hong Kong’s turmoil. Many businesspeople choose to fly to these cities and meet their Hong Kong partners there instead of flying into Hong Kong, due to their fear of protesters causing disruptions to flights or even a total airport shutdown, Hong Kong newspapers have reported.

Guangzhou and Shenzhen are also rolling out subsidies to their home carriers, China Southern and Shenzhen Airlines, to open new routes to poach business from Hong Kong.

A China Southern Airlines Boeing 777 passenger jet is seen at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Zhang Yimo/ planespotters.net
A China Southern Airlines Boeing 777 passenger jet is seen at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. Photo: Zhang Yimo/ planespotters.net

As Hong Kong deploys riot squads to guard terminals as well as the roads and trains serving the airport to prevent any future repeat of anarchy at the hub, where airlines are struggling to fill seats and shops pull down their shutters, Beijing and Shanghai are also deploying an army of staff and volunteers to stress-test their respective new airport and terminal.

Beijing’s Daxing Airport, with four runways and a 1-million-square-meter terminal, is all set to open on the eve of National Day on September 30 and aims to swiftly boost its capacity to 70 million in three to five years, close to Hong Kong’s figure in 2018. That will be on top of the 100 million flyers that use Beijing’s existing Capital Airport, according to Xinhua.

Shanghai has also inaugurated its 622,000-square-meter satellite concourse, the largest of its kind worldwide, at its Pudong Airport to add further room to unleash the potential of its cobweb of four runways. The synergy of the two airports – the other one being Hongqiao – has already made Shanghai one of the world’s busiest aviation centers with a combined passenger flow of 117.6 million in 2018.

Both Beijing and Shanghai see Hong Kong as a major rival in aviation and want to retain local passengers to use their own hubs and even lure those from Hong Kong.

Their new facilities and added capacity mean more headwind for Hong Kong, where airlines including Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines are now requesting that the airport waive ground services and parking charges as they brace for more storms and fiercer competition.

The South China Morning Post reported on Monday that the Board of Airline Representatives, with about 70 carriers that fly to and from Hong Kong as its members, had asked the government to cut airport operating costs to help airlines keep flying many routes serving the city that usually see half-empty planes being rerouted or flights simply canceled to reduce costs in recent months.

The trade association stresses that aviation supported 330,000 jobs in Hong Kong and contributed 10.2% of the city’s GDP in 2018.

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