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Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

A tale of three airports and one very heavy bag

Is Hong Kong’s Red Lightning a superhero or a dud? Delhi’s new T3 and why Bangkok customs is still seeing red.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Even efficient Hong Kong sometimes has a prehistoric moment
Efficient HK sometimes has a prehistoric moment/ photo: Verghese

HONG KONG International Airport (www.hongkongairport.com) wins regular accolades as one of the most efficient arrival points in the world and not just because things are monotonously tickety-boo. It is spotless, well signposted, fast and unfussy, all the things a tired traveller needs after hours of sitting in a flying tin cigar. Small wonder the passengers on CX702 from Bangkok on 10 September were throwing up their hands in delight as we neared the Fragrant Harbour. They pressed their faces against the windows eyes wide with excitement, some with hands on their hearts, others clutching their children. One passenger looked faint. His neighbour prayed. Another buried her face in her hands and wept. It was a quiet, ecstatic joy.

Or perhaps it was the lightning storm. Blinding needles of high-octane voltage streaked down around us turning night to day as the plane jinked and juddered trying to get a fix on the runway. The rain poured, the wind blew, the aircraft heaved, and passengers paled. We eventually landed, bullied every inch of the way by crosswinds and thunderclaps. It was a smooth one-bump touchdown. We were back in efficient Hong Kong. The stewardesses broke into smiles. It was 10.40pm.

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The plane parked by the gate and the pilot announced that due to the “current conditions” staff could not connect the airbridge. Forty-five minutes later we deplaned and stepped into an airport voted the second best in the world by our readers (www.smarttravelasia.com/travelpoll). I was through immigration in 10 minutes.

Though it is my mantra never to carry check-in bags, I had a suitcase this time, albeit an empty one, that had just transported a stack of awards for presentation in Bangkok. It had been so heavy that the customs official at Suvarnabhumi Airport (www.bangkokairportonline.com) had been unable to lift it. It had been x-rayed thoroughly, a robust hard-case Samsonite of similar ilk to those on the TV commercial where rampaging herds of elephants jump on the bags but barely dent them. I was so impressed I had bought two though one immediately expired after a brief Delhi Airport induction on its first test run. As I suspected, there were no elephants involved. The bag was indeed jumbo-secure, reassuring proof of truth in advertising. It was simply a case of Samsonite and Delhi-lah.

Back in Bangkok the perplexed customs man tried lifting my suitcase again and then opened my laptop and pored a long while over a world map that depicted countries in various colours. “Why Thailand red?” he remonstrated.

Reassuringly for travellers, many of them from the Mainland, this could have been a provincial airport in China 20 years ago…

Now at the baggage carousel at Hong Kong International Airport we all waited. A “Red Lightning” alert was posted on all the screens. The bags would be a tad late. Not an issue at an efficient world-class airport and a splendid opportunity for passengers to get to know each other. As expected, the carousel rumbled to life – some two hours later. At some point in the early morning sleep haze the bags started arriving. I sped off like a bat out of hell, a trick that is only possible at the world’s top airports. Thoughtfully, so as not to awake dozing travellers, the Airport Express line had been closed, so the passengers shuffled towards the taxi queue. And what a queue it was. The scrum, four or five abreast, tailed back deep into the arrival hall. There were no signs, no announcements, the classic understatement of a quality product. Reassuringly for travellers, many of them from the Mainland, this could have been a provincial airport in China 20 years ago, or a dream sequence from Inception.

Unlike in Singapore where taxis line up briskly, diagonal to the kerb, whisking passengers off in undue haste, at HKIA taxis park along the pavement, blocking the ones behind, as attendants amble about with no particular purpose or authority. This is the civilized way. Thus I arrived home relaxed, semi-comatose, at 2.30am.

The previous week I had passed through the aforementioned Delhi Airport, same suitcase in tow. We arrived at the spanking new Terminal 3 with carpets so lush and deep passengers sank in to the waist attempting to ford the corridor. Where once were bleary-eyed travellers milling about musty halls at 2am, fearfully entering the Twilight Zone, were brisk-stepping travellers enjoying 5.4 million square feet of gleaming designer space.

New Delhi finally got its new T3 (www.newdelhiairport.in), in July, 2010. The travelators didn’t work but who cared? It was only a one-kilometre walk in. Two solitary escalators led down to the gleaming immigration hall. There were no steps. But who cared? The hall was far too narrow for the bodies streaming in but it all smelled new and passengers were through in minutes. Duty-free beckoned, the bags bounced onto the carousels in record time and we were out into the warm night air and seated in an air-conditioned Meru radio-cab before you could say Thiruvananthapuram. But who wants a Third World airport like this? Give me Hong Kong any day.

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