Hong Kong airport shutdown was necessary as the situation left management with no other choice, Allan Zeman says

Ryan Swift

The decision to shut down Hong Kong International Airport was taken by management and approved by the government, according to Allan Zeman, a prominent businessman and one of 17 board members of the Airport Authority.

Noting that board members were kept appraised of the situation via a board members’ website, he said that management had no other choice but to shut down one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs because of safety concerns.

The decision to stop flights was taken because anti-government protesters had suddenly switched from the arrivals hall, where they were supposed to stay, and moved to the departures area and harassed travellers, Zeman said in an interview with the South China Morning Post on Wednesday.

“It was a very costly decision ... to cancel flights, but it’s the reputation. It takes so many years to build up the reputation [to be] one of the top airports in the world,” Zeman said, adding that images of protesters and violence at the airport were beamed around the world reflected poorly on the city. Two Chinese journalists were surrounded and attacked by protesters, who subsequently apologised for their actions.

Prominent entrepreneur Allan Zeman is a board member of Airport Authority, which is responsible for the operation and development of Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Winson Wong

“Obviously, that doesn’t resonate very well in China.”

Zeman was first appointed to the board in June 2015. He was reappointed in June 2018 and will stay on until 2021. Board members and the chairman of the Airport Authority are appointed by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

Hong Kong International Airport now handles over 70 million passengers annually and was the world’s 8th busiest airport for passengers in 2018, climbing 2.6 per cent year on year, according to the Airports Council International.

In 2018, Hong Kong was the world’s busiest airport for cargo, handling 5.1 million metric tonnes of cargo.

Disturbances at the airport began on July 26 with an authorised protest, while subsequent protests at the airport were unauthorised. On Monday at 4pm, the Airport Authority said in an announcement that all further departures would be rescheduled to the next day after protesters flooded into the departure hall, leaving thousands of passengers stranded. The anti-government protesters returned the next day, again forcing the authority to suspend flights. In all, more than 1,000 flights were grounded thanks to the protests.

Interactive graphic of protesters bringing Hong Kong airport to a halt

Edward Yau Tang-wah, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, has said that the number of visitors to Hong Kong dropped by around a third in the first 10 days of August, compared to the previous year. That number will decrease further because of the flight disruptions.

Zeman, whose own businesses have suffered thanks to the decrease in tourism associated with the protests and with the general economic slowdown in China, decried the actions of the protesters intent on disrupting the airport’s operations.

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“The airport is the lifeline for Hong Kong. Hong Kong has always been kingpin of the area [for aviation]. Hong Kong was always looked upon as the centre of aviation, especially with the competition of the airports around us.”

He is worried that the shutdown would divert passengers and business to neighbouring airports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou on the mainland.

On Tuesday, the Airport Authority applied for a court injunction to have police restrain anyone interfering with people using the airport. This was approved the following day.

The Airport Authority has also set up check points for people entering the terminal buildings, requiring all passengers to show a valid ticket and passport before entering the building.

Airport Authority CEO Fred Lam Tin-fuk said in future, protesters must first obtain a letter of no objection from police and approval from the airport body before any protest could be held in designated zones.

The protests and subsequent violent conflicts at the airport have nonetheless shaken the confidence of travellers to and from Hong Kong.

“Hopefully, it’s a one off,” Zeman said.

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