Hong Kong International Airport, like most airports around the world, suffered a steep and immediate drop in flights and passengers due to coronavirus.
I’ve passed through Hong Kong International Airport more times than I care to remember over the past two decades, but I’ve never seen it like this.
Already reeling as a result of the violent pro-democracy protests that kept visitors away last year, the usually busy airport on Chek Lap Kok island has become a virtual ghost town since the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak decimated global travel.
There were more airport workers and shop assistance than actual travellers when I passed through on March 12, due to a ban on tourists from mainland China and a sharp decline in visitors from other parts of the world.
The check-in lines were empty and travellers who were still flying were breezing through the security check points in a matter of minutes.
The TripAdvisor store in Terminal 1, opened just 18 months ago, had zero foot traffic when I was there.
It was a similar story at food and beverage outlets, duty free stores and airline lounges throughout the terminal.
Official data shows passenger numbers at Hong Kong Airport – one of the busiest in Asia – slumped 91 per cent in March.
There were around 576,000 travellers in March, compared to more than 6.4 million in the same period a year earlier.
According to some industry experts, coronavirus may prove to be the worst hit to the global travel industry since 9/11 – and perhaps ever.
As airlines wind down operations, countries lock down their borders and introduce strict new quarantine measures, people are unable to travel.
And those who are rushing to return home are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid being exposed to coronavirus – which has reached a grim milestone with more than two million cases reported worldwide and around 120,000 deaths.
Around 300 people died in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Now, residents in the city of seven million people are taking no chances.
Several passengers on my Cathay Pacific flight (above) from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City were covered head to toe in plastic bubble wrap, while one man wore a welder’s face mask and goggles to keep the virus at bay.
Similar images have emerged online of passengers wearing jugs over their heads to try to protect themselves.
The World Health Organisation says that healthy people do not generally need to go to such extremes. But with supplies of face masks dwindling in many countries, nervous travellers, airport workers and airline staff are taking no chances.
I was surprised that cabin crew on Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, all wore face masks during the flight (above).
Yet on my half empty Qantas flight from Hong Kong to Sydney a week later, not one flight attendant wore a mask.
Maybe that’s because in the densely populated financial hub of Hong Kong, wearing a face mask has become second nature in a bid to ward off germs and pollution.
But such measures have long been socially unacceptable in western countries like Australia, famous for its ‘laid-back, she’ll be right attitude’. Perhaps that’s a custom that will change as a result of this global pandemic.
Ticket To Nowhere
The speed and depth of the nosedive that airlines have taken in recent weeks is nothing short of breathtaking.
As you fly out of Hong Kong airport, the gravity of the travel crisis sinks in. You’ll see row after row of Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon and HK Express planes sitting idle on the tarmac.
Cathay has parked more than 130 planes, accounting for almost two thirds of its fleet. But that number will rise sharply this week as the airline cuts up to 90 per cent of its capacity.
The crisis at Cathay, the worst hit airline outside mainland China, is being replicated globally as major airlines implement emergency cost saving and cut flights across the board.
As a result, major airports around the world are becoming giant parking lots as airlines park more than 5,000 aircraft.
Analysis by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) suggests coronavirus could cost the global airline industry up to $113 billion in coming months. But a prolonged disruption presents an existential threat.
Every other airline is doing much the same, bringing the global movement of people to a standstill.
As people scrambled to get home ahead of border closures and airline shutdowns last week, there was chaos at airports across Asia, including Ho Chi Minh City airport (above) where the departure board was a sea of red.
Luckily, we were on one of the few flights out that wasn’t affected.
The only bright spot for airlines right now is the cargo market, where traffic is booming.
In fact, cargo planes will be among the few aircraft you’re likely to see in the world’s skies for the foreseeable future, especially in embattled Hong Kong.
Did You Know?
Covid-19 is an acronym that stands for Coronavirus disease of 2019. A “novel” coronavirus means that it is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified in humans.
© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved.
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