Editorial | Airport 2020

Paulo Coutinho

In November 1995, on a very windy day, the Macau International Airport was inaugurated with pomp and fanfare in the materialization of a long-time dream of Macanese people to have their own aviation industry back: part of a process of asserting the autonomy in what would be one of the two Special Administration Regions under the formula “one country, two systems.”
However, apart from a failed initial attempt to establish a route to Europe and Portugal by TAP (the Portuguese flag-carrier), neither the airport authority, Air Macau or the government made any real effort to diversify the destination-network, especially concerning long haul routes.
The ephemerous link to Portugal in the late nineties was but a political decision rather than a commercial one. I remember an interview with TAP-Macau’s head in 1998 where he said bluntly, “Not even if we carry passengers on the wings” would the flight be profitable. But the industry executive explained that the reason for the monetary drainage was because the aircraft serving the route was poorly chosen, confirming that commercial considerations were irrelevant to the Lisbon flight – that transported the last governor back to Portugal in the early hours of December 20, 1999.
In the decade that followed, the airport and the flag-carrier prospered from the non-existence of direct flights between mainland China and the “renegade province” of Taiwan.
Over the years, cozy Macau airport became the prime choice of both mainlanders and islanders, and partially replaced the role of Hong Kong as a transit terminal for the abundant niche of cross-strait air traffic, profiting heavily from that situation.
Meanwhile, from the turn of the millennium, Beijing and Taipei engaged in talks to put aside differences and signed an agreement for cross-strait charters to reunite families during the Lunar New Year.
The goose of the golden egg had its days numbered: From 2003 onwards, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese airlines flew dozens of charter flights over the Formosa Strait, ending an over half-century blockade. And in April 2009, an agreement was reached to allow cross-strait flights to be regularly scheduled instead of chartered.
Little was done during this decade of abundance to diversify markets and the discussion about inter-continental flights would remain quasi-dormant for another decade, while the network of routes to mainland China mushroomed – and again our airport and carrier made a fortune surfing the wave of astronomical gambling growth overlooking the diversification of routes once again.
Apart from that, a few regional flights beyond the country-continent to Southeast Asian destinations were established.
This year, with the Covid-19 pandemic, Macau’s dependence on Hong Kong for long haul flights became critically evident, and when the neighboring authorities shut down a temporary “travel corridor” for Macau, people were stranded here – many, especially among the non-Chinese communities, have experienced the longest period ever without leaving the city.
Not only in exceptional times, this isolation from the world is bad for business.
The lack of a truly international airport hampers the much sought-after diversification of the economy, not only for diversifying inbound gaming tourism markets, but, worse, in terms of Macau having a real shot at the MICE industry and hospitality in general, which is central to the whole idea of the development of Cotai and the integrated resorts.
In an interview this week with the Times, Helena de Senna Fernandes stated it clearly: “Unfortunately, [diversification of visitors] is not just up to the tourism department because it has to do with aviation among other things.”
The MGTO director recognized the complexity of establishing commercially viable long haul routes, but as on many other occasions in Macau… money seems to be the usual obstacle to implementing a vision to move the city forward.

Categories Editorial Macau Opinion