Hong Kong International Airport was ranked Asia-Pacific's fourth-busiest for international passengers for the first eight months of this year, rising sharply from 30th spot last year when the city's harsh Covid-19 travel restrictions were still in effect.
But industry bodies warned that staffing shortages and supply chain issues remained in the way of the airport recovering fully and reclaiming the No 1 spot it held consistently before the pandemic. It handled 71.5 million passengers in 2019.
Singapore's Changi Airport ranked first from January to August, with almost 38 million passengers. That was an 84 per cent recovery rate compared with the 45 million it handled in the first eight months of 2019, according to data compiled by Singaporean consulting firm Sobie Aviation.
Seoul's Incheon Airport was second at 35 million passengers, a 73 per cent recovery rate, and Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport was third with 25.5 million passengers, a rate of 72 per cent.
Hong Kong's airport handled 24.3 million passengers, just under half the pre-pandemic number, while Taiwan Taoyuan Airport was fifth with 21.8 million passengers, which was a recovery rate of 67 per cent.
Hong Kong fell back among Asia-Pacific airports as the city kept its tough pandemic restrictions on international arrivals even as other destinations began opening up to visitors.
The city only eased its restrictions last December, and allowed quarantine-free travel with mainland China in February.
The Airport Authority, which runs the airport, had projected that passenger traffic would return to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, with full recovery by the close of next year. In August, Hong Kong reached 67 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels.
In July, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) revised its projections for Hong Kong's aviation recovery, forecasting that the airport would reach pre-pandemic passenger levels by the end of next year, three years earlier than the global airline body previously expected.
Association of Asia Pacific Airlines director general Subhas Menon said the region's airlines carried 171 million international passengers during the first eight months of the year, just more than two-thirds of the number for the same period in 2019.
Noting that competition was intensifying globally, he said in a statement on Thursday that Asian airlines remained focused on increasing productivity.
Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie said it was encouraging to see the same top five airports were back in the rankings in August, as North Asian airports recovered traffic levels.
In August, Seoul's Incheon overtook Singapore's Changi Airport for the first time this year. Hong Kong's airport was the third-busiest every month from May to August.
Sobie said it would take time for Hong Kong to close the gap with Singapore, as the former's 3.99 million passengers in August were more than a million behind Changi's 5.15 million.
While next year was difficult to predict, he said "there is a chance that Hong Kong could come back to No 1".
He added that the final stretch of recovering to pre-pandemic levels would be the most difficult, noting that Singapore and Bangkok had opened up earlier and seen traffic plateau in recent months.
Staffing shortages at airports and airlines, supply chain issues and fleet constraints were among the hurdles in the way to returning to pre-pandemic levels, he added.
That view was echoed by Xie Xingquan, IATA's regional vice-president for North Asia, who told the Post that supply side challenges would hinder airlines' ability to add back capacity to serve strong travel demand.
He said these included a worldwide shortage of spare parts for aircraft, delays in the delivery of new planes, backlogs in aircraft maintenance and servicing, and a shortage of skilled workers including pilots and flight attendants.
Senior lecturer Andrew Yuen Chi-lok, of Chinese University's Aviation Policy and Research Centre, said Hong Kong's labour shortage remained the "major issue".
He expected the situation to improve gradually, helped by the government's plan to bring in 6,300 aviation employees, part of a wider effort to import 20,000 foreign workers.
There are about 53,000 workers at Hong Kong's airport, a third fewer than the 78,000 employed before the Covid-19 pandemic.