Ever wondered what goes on behind the check-in desks, spotless uniforms and gleaming halls of an international airport? Or how on earth the matrix of departures, arrivals, customs and baggage reclaims seems to operate like clockwork? Eric Wong, the general manager - terminal of the Airport Authority Hong Kong, finds his answer in the army of terminal managers and their teams behind the scene.
According to him, their goal is twofold: to support the airlines in providing their services to the customer and to provide general services to passengers. "We're here to coordinate - we're more like conductors," he says. "There are so many people, playing their own activities and providing their own services, so we make sure each part works in harmony."
Today, harmonious airport management requires the orchestration of a multitude of functions, from real estate management (leasing offices to airlines, general building maintenance and day-to-day operations within the terminal building) to specialised areas such as baggage handling, liaison with government departments (customs, immigration and quarantine) and those procedures covered by international aviation protocol. Add to this aviation security, plus the satisfaction of increasingly stringent procedures, local regulations and aviation laws.
"Management is a lot of common sense. You have to broaden your view and exposure [and] be open to more-or-less anything you come across. You must be able to relate, learn and be more observant"
According to Mr Wong, terminal managers also need to analyse movement trends and future demands: "We have to keep track of how people behave, the characteristics of our passengers and changes in regulations, so we [also] do planning and general management."
A lucky break
Mr Wong himself fell into his career almost by chance. "I'm an aeronautical engineer by trade and graduated in 1981, when the aviation industry wasn't moving. It's always good to start at a low time!" he says. His lucky break came via an interview at Singapore's Changi airport, which led to his appointment as an assistant airport manager with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
After returning to Hong Kong in 1986, Mr Wong broadened his aviation experience by leading a ground operations team for a Hong Kong-based cargo airline. However, he soon returned to airport management, joining the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department, becoming involved in all aspects of managing Kai Tak Airport - and rising to the position of deputy airport general manager. A member of the Airport Authority Hong Kong management team since 1996, he is now responsible for the overall management of the passenger terminal, land transportation and property leasing within the passenger terminal.
Mr Wong admits that the airport manager's role has changed significantly over the past decades, largely due to increasingly sophisticated passenger expectations. "Nowadays, passengers compare services to those in other airports, such as TV, amenities, children's play areas," he notes. "It's getting more customer-focused, as people are more frequent flyers and their expectations are much higher. We continuously have to find ways to meet and exceed their expectations."
One typical example is the provision of a one-stop-shop service for passengers from mainland China, circa 20 percent of passengers today. "It's perhaps their first time going out of China or their first time in contact with English signage, so the human touch is very important here. It's something you can never replace, despite the widespread existence of interactive computerised information booths..." he emphasises.
The three Ts...
Above all, Mr Wong believes that terminal managers must get three factors right to enjoy success. "Most people don't know how well you maintain the runway or the airfield pavement. Three things in the mind of the passengers are very crucial: the toilets, the taxis and the trolleys. You'll be an airport management expert if you can manage these three things right!"
In addition to taking care of the three Ts, this career means being willing to learn, according to Mr Wong. "Management is a lot of common sense. You have to broaden your view and exposure [and] be open to more-or-less anything you come across. You must be able to relate, learn and be more observant."
Ultimately, although some background knowledge of the airline industry or ground handling is a plus for potential recruits, having the right approach is definitely more important. "Normally, when we recruit new joiners to airport management, we're looking more for people with the right attitude for general management. We can train them up."
"It would be a challenge for me if we could really go beyond Hong Kong and get into running airports in other places, be able to expand our business and become a globalised company," says Mr Wong. "As for my personal aspirations, [I'd like to] be able to grow our business and manage a chain of airports. To have this beautiful airport, where passengers come, enjoy themselves and have a very special experience, is something I always wanted to achieve. If I could have a few more of these, it would be very nice!"