The novel coronavirus epidemic is crippling Hong Kong’s aviation sector, promoting the government to make preparations to close two of the airport’s three terminals. Once chock-a-block with passengers, the concourses have fallen quiet as people cancel trips and governments shut borders.
The city’s Airport Authority is reportedly in talks with airlines, service providers and retail tenants to negotiate relocating them under one roof in Terminal 1 after the closure of the Midfield Concourse and North Satellite Concourse. This means two of the three existing facilities at the key aviation node would be vacated and mothballed indefinitely.
In 2018, the three teeming terminals handled 74.5 million passengers, making Hong Kong the world’s eighth-busiest hub, on a par with London’s Heathrow and Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airports.
The airy, 105,000-square-meter Midfield Concourse sitting between the airport’s two runways will likely be shut next month, less than four years after it was inaugurated in 2016. Its closure has much to do with ailing Hong Kong Airlines, once a trophy asset of the Chinese aviation conglomerate HNA. Mounting debts, an expansion spree to compete with local rival Cathay Pacific, as well as months of social unrest since last year and the unfolding pneumonic pandemic have thrown its fortunes into a tailspin.
Hong Kong Airlines is the anchor user of the concourse. Its 20 jet bridges and plane stands capable of serving “superjumbo jets” like A380s were once much needed as the airline aspired to graduate from a regional company to a global carrier with intercontinental services to North America. However, the facilities have been underused since HKA’s ascent began to lose thrust in recent years. The HNA subsidiary has been forced to wave the axe a number of times to slash pilots and attendants on its payroll and defer receiving new planes after its parent’s journey to turn its business around and offload loans turned out to be much bumpier than expected.
HNA again flew into the media glare this week amid swirling rumors that its main fleet asset could be taken over by Air China with subsidiaries to be acquired by China Southern and China Eastern, since it could no longer stay afloat due to the sharp slump in ridership during the still-raging epidemic in China. In a bid to dispel the jitters of passengers and investors, HNA chief Chen Feng made a rare appearance at the company’s operation base in Hainan on Thursday and inspected staff.
A smaller satellite concourse mainly used by Cathay Dragon for mainland routes has also been closed, as an outright quarantine order on everyone entering the city from mainland China means all cross-boundary flights must be canceled, except for two daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai.
Other than the de facto moratorium on mainland China services, Cathay, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, as well as its subsidiaries Dragon and Hong Kong Express, are also experiencing a prolonged lull on overseas routes and have to ground wide-body jets amid tepid demand, as foreign governments categorize the city as an “infected area” of the viral outbreak that emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Cathay, Asia’s largest international airline, is now asking its 30,000 staff to take turns going on no-pay leave, according to local papers.
Cathay has, however, been asked by the city’s government to dispatch jets to airlift Hongkongers stranded aboard the Diamond Princess cruise anchored off Yokohama in Japan.
The Hong Kong government has promised to repatriate more than 360 people who are either infected with the acute respiratory pathogen or still under compulsory quarantine after being trapped on the vessel for almost two weeks.
Cathay is expected to operate three flights to Tokyo to evacuate the Hongkongers, due to the the Japanese authorities’ slow progress in conducting health inspections and making logistical arrangements. The airline will not charge any fees for the service, but has received a one-off payment of an undisclosed amount from the government to cover all expenses.
It is understood that the Boeing 777 wide-body planes deployed will have to be suspended from commercial operation to undergo thorough disinfection, during which seat covers, cushions, air-conditioner filters, etc will be replaced, a process that will take days to finish.