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Just as Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport sit-in in 2008 has become a distant memory, the use of Hong Kong International Airport as protest grounds underscores how easily “occupy airports” can happen, leaving a trail of destruction for an unwitting victim: the travel and tourism industry.
Exposing airports’ vulnerability, the Airport Authority Hong Kong on Sept. 6, ahead of another weekend of demonstrations, resorted to begging protesters to “spare our passengers further disruption.” In a half-page advertisement in the South China Morning Post, it pleaded with protesters “not to disrupt the journeys of tens of thousands of travelers who use our airport every day.”
The Airports Council International Asia-Pacific, based in Hong Kong, is equally helpless. Its strongest move to date is issuing a statement on August 14 condemning disruptions at Hong Kong’s airport.
“Since July, a number of public protests were staged at Hong Kong International Airport,” said the statement. “More recently, the protests on August 12 and 13 rendered significant disruptions to airport operations, including security risks and flight cancellations two days in a row.”
“We stand in solidarity with our colleagues at Hong Kong International Airport and Airport Authority Hong Kong. The aviation industry is a close-knit community and together, we stand firm and united in bringing people together, ensuring the safety and security of the traveling public by offering a network of safe and secure airports,” it added.
Flash points in Asia
It will be surprising if the council — which represents 113 members operating 600 airports in 49 countries/territories in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East — isn’t already giving this issue a lot more thought. Are airports sending across a harmful message that their operations can easily be crippled by demonstrators? Shouldn’t members unite to find out what practices or measures are possible to prevent future occupations of airports?
The organization isn’t responding to these questions when contacted by Skift.
While two protest-occupied airports out of 600 airports is by no means a trend, the fact is flash points, be they over politics, trade, territories, ideologies, socioeconomic issues, religions, and so on, have occurred and will continue to occur in Asia, even though the region is by and large peaceful. Aside from the pro-democracy battle between Hong Kong and China, think India and Kashmir, Japan and South Korea, Taiwan and China, and the South China Sea disputes, to name a few ongoing tightropes.
What’s more, there’s the Middle East.
“It’s evidently clear now that demonstrators can and will use airports as a means to highlight their cause,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of Endau Analytics, a Singapore and Malaysia consultancy that offers advisory and research services that include aviation economics and aircraft/airport financing within Asia-Pacific.
“Airports are easy or soft targets. And by definition airports contain many international passengers for which to raise one’s cause and attract the international media attention.
“Many airports are designed and built with large open spaces. Moreover checks and security are only for departing or arriving passengers inside, not outside the airport. Anyone can walk through an airport. Literally thousands. Airports are also key infrastructure and symbolic to a nation, territory,” added Yusof.
“Can it be prevented? Yes, but it takes a lot of manpower and resources and can be off-putting to tourists and travelers.”
Peter Harbison, chairman emeritus of CAPA – Center for Aviation, said, “Airports and airlines together offer valuable pressure points for causes of any kind, as they are both physically concentrated and iconically sensitive — as well as intertwined. If anything it’s surprising that airports in particular have not been used more by any variety of causes.
“There are various ways of controlling access to airport terminals — one being the tedious and quite common process in Asia of everyone having to show a ticket in some form before being allowed entry at all,” he said.
How to Shut Down an Airport
On November 25, 2008, anti-government “yellow shirt” protesters blocked the main access road to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport. Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main entrance ramp to the departure terminal.
Protesters, who were in a six-month fight to oust the government, which they saw as a puppet for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, pushed through lines of riot police, who were under orders not to use violence. Their vanguard smashed doors with iron bars and were able to take over strategic areas of the airport, including the control tower, according to media accounts.
The airport’s authority said it had no choice but to close the facility.
The party that led the siege, the People’s Alliance for Democracy, handed out leaflets to stranded tourists, apologizing for the disruption and justifying the measure as “crucial to bring an end to the traitorous killer government.”
The siege lasted nine days. When the airport reopened on December 4, 2008, more than 300,000 visitors were stranded and hundreds of flights canceled, including those that were connecting to Suvarnabhumi from domestic airports.
An important regional hub, Suvarnabhumi airport, which opened in 2006 at a cost of $3.8 billion, was at the time handling around 700 flights each day and almost 40 million passengers a year.
The closure of the airport was said to have cost the Thai economy more than $500 million, aside from leaving its reputation as a Kingdom of Smiles in tatters.
Over at the Hong Kong airport, one of Asia’s busiest with more than 75 million travelers passing through each year, thousands of protesters started occupying the arrivals hall and some departure areas from August 9 for that weekend sit-in. Initially it was peaceful, with demonstrators, including airport staff and Cathay Pacific employees, greeting passengers with a “Free Hong Kong” chant at the arrivals terminal.
However, at the departure hall the next day, the sit-in turned violent between police and protesters who accused a man of being a Beijing spy and another a pro-Beijing journalist. A surge of demonstrators at the hall inevitably held passengers hostage, as they were unable to get to their gates. Flights were canceled.
The airport resumed operations on Wednesday, August 14. According to the airport’s authority, close to 1,000 flights were canceled from August 9 to 13, cutting the number of passengers handled by 40 percent.
The authority also said it had obtained an interim injunction to “restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering with the proper use” of the airport and from “attending or participating in any demonstration or protest in the airport” other than in designated areas.
Police officers were deployed inside the building and airport staff stopped people other than travelers and authorized personnel from entering it after copies of the injunction were posted, local media reported.
Yet, despite the injunction, protesters were still able to cripple airport operations as part of August 31 weekend protests, forcing train operator MTR to suspend services to the airport by damaging stations and throwing stones and steel bars on some tracks.
On September 7, a huge police presence at the airport and its approaching roads managed to stall another planned demonstration at the airport.
No Easy Solutions
There are no easy solutions to prevent airport shutdowns, believes Laurent Kuenzle, CEO of Asian Trails Group, who saw the chaos Occupy Suvarnabhumi wreaked on travel companies.
“Things that should work in theory may not work in real life,” he said. “In theory a government would ideally set aside a protest ground where protesters can express their views. Whether protesters accept that is a different question.
“In theory a government should do everything in its power to protect its infrastructure, including stations, airports and of course government buildings. In the case of Hong Kong I believe it has not,” said Kuenzle.
At present, the Bangkok and Hong Kong incidents may be exceptions rather than the rule. But what they do highlight is that an airport is a key national infrastructure, and anything that disrupts its efficiency will harm hurt the country’s image, its economy, businesses, and tourism.
With such high stakes, the question is not what can be done but what will be done to stop the level of disruption from “occupy airports.”