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High Prices in Airports: No Hope to Fall?

Feeling hungry at the airport during the tiresome wait for your flight? Or need to buy some local specialties from airport shops just minutes before you leave because you were too busy with business during your visit?


You may retract your hand from your wallet once you see the prices: 15 yuan (US$1.85) for a bowl of instant noodles and 18 yuan for a kilo of longan (a kind of pulpy fruit).


Feeling frustrated? It gets worse. Now your stomach groans, warning you of hunger and the loudspeaker announces the flight time is near. Then you begin to struggle: to buy or not to buy?


Known as "airport windfall profits," the sky-high price in airports has for long been beyond ordinary people's reach and the target of complaints. The same commodity sold in the airport is usually several times more expensive than its market counterpart.


Despite the pressure from media exposure, "airport windfall profits" have never stopped their money grabbing. As the media have strengthened its focus on the high price in recent years, some big airports have adopted some measures to lower the price, but with no significant improvements yet.


Why does the price in airports refuse to fall?


Besides high stall rents in airports, there is an underlying contradiction that hinders the realization of rational prices.


An official from the Baiyun International Airport revealed that high prices in airports are closely bound to the fact that air travel has not become a common consumption for ordinary people. That means that prices in airports depend largely on the passenger volume and passenger purchasing power. The stall owners are likely to extort a pile from a customer who suddenly appears in their shops.


Statistics show that people in the Chinese mainland travel by air just once per year on average while the figure for Hong Kong people is 7 or 8 times on average.


But the fact is most of the airports in the mainland are not completely government-funded; instead, the money is raised through listed companies. As a result, airports, unlike public facilities, are more and more profit-oriented. Between serving the public and making a profit, airports will choose the latter.


Still, as airports are publicly owned, the government has the power to administrate airports on behalf of the public. But the dilemma embarrassing the government is whether to act in conformity with market principles or to protect consumers' rights.


In foreign countries, interest groups authorized by the government own the airport business stalls. In this way, the government can concentrate more on the airport plan and administration instead of directly supervising profit-making programs.


However, according to an investigation in April, a small bag of popcorn is sold for 28 yuan in the Chengdu Shuangliu Airport; two apples are sold for 305 yuan (a whopping US$37.73) in the Beijing Capital International Airport; and a bowl of noodles is sold for 48 yuan in the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. To justify the sky-high prices, the stall owners explained that the customers were so rare that they were not likely to earn even their stall rents without such high prices.


Perhaps they will never lower the prices even with more customers as long as the government has a share of the profits.


(Chinadaily.com.cn, by Guan Xiaomeng, November 17, 2005)

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