Not clear for takeoff

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2008, 12:00am

My column advocating a third runway for Hong Kong's airport and ways to increase air traffic capacity has attracted a lot of response. Two prominent academics have written articles in other newspapers to discuss the issue. Law Cheung-kwok, from Chinese University, says it is absolutely necessary to build a third runway, but even with one - and an increase to 90 flights an hour - the airport will reach its capacity in 2015. He estimates that the third runway would contribute HK$56 billion in economic gains to Hong Kong.

Thomas Chan Man-hung, of Polytechnic University, points out two constraints on our air industry. First, Hong Kong's development is in conflict with the Pearl River Delta's master plan. Second, the air space is controlled by the mainland.

Despite these challenges - or because of them - building a third runway is imperative. Increasing the capacity of the two existing runways is also feasible. The lack of action is simply due to the bureaucratic behaviour of the Civil Aviation Department.

The replies from Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng to the Legislative Council on April 30 indicate that she has totally bought the arguments of the Civil Aviation Department bureaucrats.

According to Ms Cheng, Hong Kong's air traffic capacity is limited by the hilly landscape. I think this is nonsense. Kai Tak airport, with a single runway and situated in the heart of an urban area, could accommodate 37 flights per hour. Chek Lap Kok, with two runways and a much more agreeable environment, should be able to handle twice that amount. Indeed, the new airport has been servicing more than 70 flights an hour during peak periods.

Ms Cheng's reply on manpower is also very unsatisfactory. I put it to her that Hong Kong should recruit more air traffic controllers from overseas. Her answer was that a batch of foreign recruits was hired in 1997 but about 70 per cent subsequently quit. She said the lesson learned was that training local staff would be a more cost-effective way to use public resources.

Ms Cheng is obviously being misled by the Civil Aviation Department. Foreign controllers left simply because their pay became unattractive as a result of the fall in value of the Hong Kong dollar. The government could have given them special allowances or improved their working conditions, to help retain them. Attractive pay packages will attract talent not just from the US and Europe, but also from Asia and other regions. The Civil Aviation Department is resisting an increase in air traffic capacity because its manpower is already stretched. It is understood that most air traffic controllers consistently work very long hours and cannot take their leave. Some cannot even take half of their entitled annual leave, with others clocking up more than 200 hours of compensation leave for overtime work.

The planning parameters of the department are to allow 15 per cent of its staff to be on leave at any one time. But, the existing situation is such that, for example, one staff member had to handle stressful work for eight months of her pregnancy. I understand that the staff-shortage situation is even more acute after 6pm, which explains why capacity is lower in the evenings. This kind of working environment will not only damage health, it will eventually affect air safety. This is a problem of mismanagement.

I understand that there are two camps with the Civil Aviation Department. The more progressive group supports increased runway capacity, while the traditional bureaucratic camp is resisting change. The result is that management does not dare fight for the necessary resources to expand its operations.

It is ironic that the government is spending HK$3 billion on the new Civil Aviation Department headquarters, but not a cent on recruiting more controllers. One cannot help but ask whether the government is building a white elephant, or aiming to sharpen Hong Kong's competitiveness in air transport. I think it is time the chief executive looked at the problem. Hong Kong's leadership position in air transport will soon be overtaken by regional competitors if we do not act quickly. We risk losing it forever.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a directly elected legislator