Six months after opening, Macau International Airport is struggling to generate business.

Terence Hardeman and Brent Hannon/MACAU

WITH FANFARE and speeches, the $1.1 billion Macau International Airport was officially opened in December 1995. Apart from the arrival of Dr Mario Soares, president of Portugal, and a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules flyover, the island runway loomed long and empty against the South China Sea.

The question of the day - would the ambitious project be successful - was answered by the gathered aviation- and travel-industry professionals with a guarded "yes". Given its troubled history, it was probably a relief that the airport had opened at all. Reports of corruption in the construction contracts had already resulted in the hasty departure of Macau's governor, and disputes with administrations in China over the provision of materials had threatened completion of the building programme.


Estimating demand

Macau has never had an airport and it previously depended on its boat links to Hong Kong to ferry around 8 million visitors a year. Demand at the airport is therefore difficult to predict, although Macau is being liberal with its air-service agreements. It has signed agreements with 12 countries, and at least 12 more negotiations are under way. The airport hopes that the current trickle of airlines - Air China, China Northern, CNAC, Eva Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, TAP Air Portugal and TransAsia - becomes a flood. Jose Queiroz, chairman of the Macau Civil Aviation Authority, hopes to have 12 airlines flying to Macau by mid-1996.

The most critical accord signed so far is with Taiwan. Macau is perfectly positioned to ease the passage of a yearly 1.5 million Taiwanese into China. Because direct flights are banned, Taiwanese passengers squeeze through Hong Kong's Kai Tak, change aircraft, and continue on to the mainland. Now, they can take a flight from Taipei, sit on an Air Macau Airbus A321 for an hour, and then continue into China.

The Taiwan link is Macau's trump card. Start-up airline Air Macau's two A321s and two A320s fly exclusively to Taiwan and China. Taiwan and Macau each have rights to fly 8,400 passengers a week into China - a potential of 870,000 passengers a year, or about half the total number of Taiwanese travellers to China.

The route to Taiwan is a double-edged sword, however. Two airlines reciprocate from Taiwan - Eva Air and TransAsia - and they could be expected to abandon Macau if direct flights to China were to begin. That would leave the airport to survive on the strength of its destination traffic, and on the overflow from Hong Kong as Kai Tak fills up and Chek Lap Kok opens at capacity, with just a single runway, in late 1997.

The Macau authorities expect that 7% of passengers will have Hong Kong as their final destination, a figure which they predict will rise to 8% by 2000. A ferry terminal, direct from the airport to Hong Kong immigration, is unfinished, although it was due to open in early 1996.


The numbers game

There are now five major airports within an 80km (50 miles) radius of the Pearl River Delta in southern China, including Guangzhou, Kai Tak, Macau, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. In the USA, or even Europe, a central air-traffic-control region would be established. In this case, however, there are three control centres operating under three regimes. Also, China continues to use metric altimeter settings, while Macau and Hong Kong use imperial and millibar readings.

Jaime Caldas, director of flight operations at Air Macau, says that pilots have to change from altitude reports in feet to metres, and then back to feet again for landing. According to airport director Antonio Rato, however, Macau has been a catalyst in bringing various interests together in the region, and a central control will soon be established at Zhuhai.

As there is an indigenous population of only 500,000 and no established aviation industry in Macau, Rato has had to draw on the resource of mainland China to recruit air-traffic controllers and other staff. Having requested 13 senior controllers from China, Rato says that he was offered "the choice of 25 experienced people".

Rato now has 1,500 staff to cope with about 36 aircraft movements and around 3,300 passengers a day. This falls way short of the airport authority's early predictions, which had Rato hoping to attract 2.2 million passengers a year by then end of 1996. Annual capacity is about 5 million passengers and 123,000t of cargo.

Using Macau will not be a bargain, however, as landing fees average just 10% less than those for Kai Tak, and Air Macau flights into China cost about the same as flights from Kai Tak.

Jim Eckes of consultancy Indoswiss believes that it will be a year or so before the airport develops the sort of critical mass to ensure convenient connections. That is the prevailing view - Macau's airport will be successful, eventually.

Source: Flight International