Open military airspace to ease jams, says study

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2008, 12:00am

Flight limitations in Pearl River Delta adding millions to fuel costs

The central government should consider opening up military airspace and introducing integrated air-traffic management to ease air congestion in the Pearl River Delta region, researchers have said.

The suggestions were made in a Chinese University study that found congestion above the region's five airports costs airlines hundreds of millions of dollars in extra fuel costs - partly as a result of having to constantly switch between three air-traffic control centres.

The airports at Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Guangzhou, are served by air-navigation services in Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Hong Kong.

'Aircraft flying near or across sector boundaries are frequently delayed as they are transferred from one controlling facility to another,' the paper says.

It says more runways will not necessarily provide more capacity if the airspace congestion cannot be solved.

The Airport Authority began the second phase of a study on a third runway last month.

The researchers suggested that Beijing could open up military airspace for civilian use whenever possible, a principle widely adopted in Europe and the United States.

'The dominance of Chinese military control over airspace is one of the reasons leading to airspace congestion. Also, there are more and more planes but the airspace remains limited,' Law Cheung-kwok, a member of the research team, said.

'But in the US, the Federal Aviation Authority owns and manages all the airspace. It provides the same services to the military as to civilians. This means the airspace can be better co-ordinated,' Dr Law said.

According to the Civil Aviation Department, all airspace within the Hong Kong flight information region is available for civilian use.

It could not comment on mainland airspace.

Under requirements enforced by mainland authorities since colonial days, aircraft crossing from Hong Kong into Zhuhai airspace have to fly at about 5,000 metres, to minimise the effect on other air traffic. It has become known in aviation circles as an 'invisible wall'.

The study found that seven out of every 10 Dragonair mainland flights, 90 per cent of all its total flights, experienced delays in 2006. In 2004 the figure was 3.6 in 10.

Government data quoted in the paper shows that more than 3,000 flights from Hong Kong were delayed in 2006, more than three times the number recorded in 2004.

The paper also estimated that extra fuel costs from detours caused by the 'invisible wall' amounted to about HK$605 million in 2006.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department and the Civil Aviation Authority Macau set up a working group in February 2004 to optimise the use of Pearl River Delta airspace.

Last year, the group agreed that a future air-traffic management plan might include changes to airspace structure and establishment of more routes.

In order to alleviate congestion, mainland authorities recently dropped the altitude requirement from 11pm to 7am, the effectiveness of which has been questioned by academics.

'How many flights are there in this time period?' Dr Law asked.

The paper also stated that air-traffic congestion within the Pearl River Delta affected Hong Kong most directly.

The Pearl River Delta includes five major airports in close proximity: Guangzhou New Baiyun International Airport, Hong Kong International Airport, Macau International Airport, Shenzhen Baoan International Airport and Zhuhai Airport.

Although Guangzhou airport is about 140km from Hong Kong, the other three airports are less than 60km from the city.

After looking at US and European Union models, the study concluded that an integrated military-civilian air-traffic management infrastructure might be the solution to air congestion in the Pearl River Delta.

The unfriendly skies

Congestion in the Pearl River Delta airspaces is causing problems in the areas of...

Flight time

The percentage of Dragonair flights delayed in 2006: 70%

Fuel consumption

The extra fuel costs incurred by all flights arriving or departing from Chek Lap Kok in 2006: HK$605m

SOURCE: CHINESE UNIVERSITY