Clipping our wings
When tycoon Li Ka-shing openly opposed the plan to build Container Terminal 10, many finally woke up to the fact that Hong Kong's logistics industry has been under severe threat from neighbouring ports. As Hong Kong repeatedly postponed the project, we were overtaken by the Yantian port in Shenzhen. But I still support the new terminal, as it will help drive down port charges and benefit our competitiveness.
Beijing also understands our competitiveness problem. To avoid Hong Kong being marginalised, Premier Wen Jiabao has exhorted the city to strengthen its position as an international centre for finance, shipping and transport, commerce and trade, as well as conventions and exhibitions.
Hong Kong's aviation industry has been under severe threat, too, but the authorities have not done enough to bolster our position as a global hub. In the past, many harboured the misunderstanding that Cathay Pacific's monopoly got in the way of Hong Kong's development. But we have already adopted an open-sky policy and Cathay has given up its role as runway slot co-ordinator. Like every other player, Cathay suffers from the lack of capacity on Chek Lap Kok's runways. The two runways have already reached full capacity, as per Civil Aviation Department restrictions, with 55 scheduled flights every hour. There is no way more new flights can be arranged.
There is growing support for the building of a third runway, as soon as possible. Others oppose the idea, arguing that the two runways have not yet reached their full usage. I support a third runway; otherwise, we will repeat the mistakes seen in the delays with the new container terminal.
Previously, some people have blamed the so-called restricted airspace over mainland China. But, after mainland authorities said this was not the case, no one mentioned it again. The crux of the air-traffic capacity issue actually lies squarely with our mismanagement of the Civil Aviation Department.
With a capacity of only 55 scheduled flights an hour, we are obviously lagging behind. In Beijing or Bangkok, the runway capacity is 60 takeoffs and landings per hour; in Singapore it is 66; Frankfurt, 78; London Heathrow; 85; and Los Angeles, 155. Even neighbouring Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou can handle 60 scheduled flights but it has already started construction of a third runway. In 2004, a study by then director of civil aviation Albert Lam Kwong-yu concluded that, within a few years, runway capacity could rise to 66 flights per hour. But Mr Lam's successor, Norman Lo Shung-man, insists that, because of safety and resource considerations, by 2009 the airport could handle only 58 flights.
Obviously, the Civil Aviation Department is handling the capacity issue in a completely bureaucratic manner. With safety and localisation as an excuse, the department is resisting reforms, so as to avoid making mistakes. It does not understand that air transport is the key to Hong Kong's economic future. If we cannot even match our competitors on runway capacity, how can we possibly vie for the position of global hub?
In fact, the government's consultants have concluded that Hong Kong's airport can accommodate between 72 and 78 flights per hour, provided that procedures are improved and manpower enhanced. But the Civil Aviation Department is not providing enough air traffic controllers to meet such demand. The department has refused to recruit externally. If, say, 30 expatriates were recruited, with an annual package of HK$1 million each, the additional expenditure could easily be recouped from the tens of billions of dollars generated by the extra flights, and the spending of passengers they would bring in.
It is high time government leaders moved swiftly to overrule the bureaucrats' decision, to safeguard Hong Kong's long-term interest. We have already lost the competitive advantages of our container ports. The consequences of losing our air transport hub position is unthinkable.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator