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Pilot report: Hong Kong International Airport

I’ve heard that the central terminal of Hong Kong’s new airport is the largest indoor space in the world. Dispatching this column from an Internet cafe in Laos forbids me the luxury of verification (ever try Googling on a 14 Kbps modem?), but it’s certainly plausible. Not since I stood beneath the ceiling of St. Peter’s have I been so awestruck by the immensity of a place. The effect, however, like the great basilica’s, is one less of intimidation or majesty than a kind of hypersized functionality. The building is big because it needs to be. By 2000, with the completion of a third concourse, HKG’s capacity had reached 45 million passengers yearly.

To correctly savor the main hall’s spaciousness, one needs to pause, step back, and spend a few seconds gazing upward. Most people aren’t prone to do this, of course, especially when their view is blocked by no fewer than 150 retail stores and 25 restaurants, all part of a 31,000-square-meter shopping complex. Riding the moving walkway along the central concourse, I muse aloud to my travel partner Dave: “It just doesn’t feel like an airport,” I say. A good thing, ostensibly. “But what does it feel like?”

Dave has never set foot in Asia before, and although his familiarity with the trends and scourges of modern airports is limited, he hardly skips a beat. “A mall.”

I was afraid of that, but of course he’s right. And as I’ve written, it seems the evolution of the international airport will not be complete until the terminal and shopping center are virtually indistinguishable. From what I’ve seen in the past year at properties in Dubai, Malaysia and now Hong Kong, that day is fast approaching.

A rundown of Hong Kong’s facts and figures makes great fodder for a Discovery Channel documentary. Did you know the main terminal’s half a million square meters is nine times the floor space of the city’s old Kai Tak? Did you know the airport rests on a massive 1,255-hectare manmade island, constructed from scratch all the way to the seabed? And so forth. Sci-fi numbers indeed, but hardly inspirational to the average visitor, whose objective isn’t marveling or meditating at the architecture or its superlatives. He or she has one far more pragmatic goal in mind: minimizing the time it takes to transfer from airplane to city, city to airplane. To this end, fliers are paraded past the gantlets of shops and eateries or funneled through a vast Rube Goldberg affair of escalators and passageways.

When the travel magazines run their annual polls of favorite airports, the new Hong Kong is frequently one of them. What this attests to, exactly, I can’t say — the grandeur of the architecture, the lack of long lines at immigration, or the chance to pick up that duty-free Bulgari you’ve always wanted. In a simple lesser of evils game, perhaps choosing a favorite airport is something akin to choosing a favorite hospital: Conveniences and accoutrements aside, nobody really wants to be there in the first place. And in the race for common appeal, all the exposed girders, polished chrome kiosks and computerized moving sidewalks won’t save even the best and biggest airports from a standard of 21st century genericism.

Architecture and ambience: B
Efficiency and processing: A (four minutes through security)
Facilities, shops and distractions: A or F, depending

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.