Chek Lap Kok—as the airport is informally known, after the islet that was leveled to provide its landfill—was an enormous gamble. Costing some $20 billion, the project included the construction of a massive suspension bridge, an undersea tunnel, a rail line, and 20 miles of connecting highway. The tab came to more than $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city. But not just money was at stake; the sheer chutzpah of the plan represented a bold statement of confidence in a city that was passing from the benign neglect of British colonial rule to the uncharted waters of mainland Chinese politics.
And what a statement. The whole complex seemed to go on forever; and then the enormous terminal itself appeared, a half-mile long, glowing in the darkness like a Klingon warship. We glided to a stop, then streamed out on a long passageway that opened up into a cathedral-like space with a huge, curving ceiling, multiple levels crisscrossing high above.
Stunned by the monumentality, I scarcely noticed when my bag slid down onto the carousel 20 minutes after our wheels had hit the tarmac. Something, apparently, was working after all.
THE NEXT DAY I OPENED THE PAPER TO SEE THAT THE PRESS was still having a field day with the airport's problems. Three separate government commissions had been appointed to figure out whose heads should roll. Buried in the stories, however, were reports that the baggage is now being delivered in as little as 12 minutes.
So what was it—disaster or miracle?To hear the position of the airport's beleaguered proponents, I made an appointment at Foster & Partners, the architects behind the terminal.
Winston Shu, the gregarious architect who had overseen the implementation of Sir Norman Foster's design, ushered me into the company's downtown office and whisked me through a whirlwind presentation of models and schematics. He showed off the computer systems used to piece the vast project together.
Though their pervasiveness goes unnoticed by passengers, computers are having an immense influence on the design of next-generation airports. In a process called flow modeling, electronic dots representing passengers zip through a simulated environment just as real people would, letting architects optimize the amount of space allocated for check-in, shops, departure lounges, and so forth. Computers now also handle almost every phase of airport operation, from aircraft flow to the display of arrival and departure information and the setting of the air-conditioning. At Chek Lap Kok, they even control the futuristic light-rail system that runs between downtown Hong Kong and the terminal at speeds of up to 100 mph.
Rail links are another cutting-edge feature of modern airports. Around the world, 130 airports have train service or are planning to add it. Amsterdam's Schiphol, long a trendsetter, has its own station. Heathrow opened the first segment of its fast rail link to London in June. Even with Americans, long dismissive of train travel, the idea has started to click: after decades of wrangling, JFK is finally slated to get its own automated rail link in 2002.
But for gee-whiz styling it's hard to beat Hong Kong's, which looks like a bullet train on the outside and a Star Wars set inside. And it's fast. Shu and I hardly had time to scan through the news snippets and airport maps that scrolled down the monitor in front of us before the train eased into Chek Lap Kok, 23 minutes after departing from downtown. We strolled out under the glass-roofed entranceway, where free baggage carts were liberally sprinkled about—a small but telling touch.
"You never have to change levels, from the time you get off the train until you board your aircraft," Shu pointed out. "That's important if you've got a trolley piled high with luggage."
We had entered the main terminal, with its great scalloped aluminum roof soaring 80 feet above. So much light flooded in from the huge glass front wall that we might as well have been outdoors. Waves of cool air flowed down from invisible air-conditioning ducts, and the vast interior seemed to swallow extraneous sound. Everything was suffused with a sense of impenetrable calm.
The lateral line of the roof swells overhead as subtly as the taper in a classical Greek column. "It's shaped like the back of a whale," said Shu. "The highest point is directly over the check-in counters. You've got so many people congregating here that it would feel oppressive if the ceiling were lower. Airiness is so important—especially if you're going to be stuck in a tube for the next twelve hours."
We walked to the edge of the mezzanine overlooking the departure concourses. Daylight streamed in from skylights; all around we could see the mountains, the ocean, and, directly in front of us, the long stretch of the main concourse, with planes parked at each gate. Below us, arriving passengers filed toward immigration and customs. "Sir Norman's philosophy of design is clarity," said Shu. "You can see exactly where you need to go, all the way to the airplane itself. You almost don't require signage."
ERGONOMIC DESIGN IS WONDERFUL, OF COURSE, but it's all overshadowed by one menacing problem: baggage. I had been so swept up by Shu's enthusiasm, I nearly forgot that the airport was still struggling to recover from the chaos of its first week, when passengers had to wait up to five hours for their luggage.