Clipping our wings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong's status as a premier aviation hub is facing huge challenges and we have to act quickly to bolster our position, lest we lose a major competitive advantage. In a recent speech, Cathay Pacific chief executive Tony Tyler said that one of the biggest issues was with our infrastructure: the Hong Kong International Airport suffers from insufficient runway slot capacity.

The Civil Aviation Department is planning to gradually increase takeoffs and landings on the two existing runways from 54 to 68 per hour by 2015. But, even then, capacity will fall short of long-term requirements. A third runway is urgently needed.

This issue has been discussed before in this column. No doubt, the government should immediately start a feasibility study for a third runway. Increasing the capacity on existing runways is equally important. But the real bottleneck is not congested airspace over the Pearl River Delta, as described by Mr Tyler.

The real problem is the shortage of air traffic controllers, which makes it impossible to maximise the slot capacity. I have pointed out before that the director general of Civil Aviation, Norman Lo Shung-man, has been managing the airport's traffic in a very conservative way. His tunnel vision and bureaucratic mindset have prevented the department from recruiting controllers from outside Hong Kong to meet needs.

A technocrat's only guiding principle is to avoid mistakes. As the logic goes, the less one does, the less likely one commits mistakes. A technocrat would not understand the importance of runway capacity to Hong Kong's status as a hub and its whole economy. The shortage has reached a critical point and further delay in boosting manpower may even put safety at risk.

Indeed, air traffic controllers are harbouring a lot of grudges about their workload, and their union has completely lost confidence in the department. For a prolonged period, many controllers have been deferring their leave and working overtime. Sooner or later, some will crack under the pressure or because of fatigue. Mr Lo always uses safety as the reason to resist enhancing capacity. But he is contradicting himself by overworking his staff.

Nurturing local talent is, of course, the long-term solution to manpower shortage, but that won't help relieve problems in the short term. The department keeps reminding us that it takes four years to train a controller. But it takes another 10 years for a controller to mature into a senior professional. In such cases, the department should recruit overseas right away.

The recession provides a good opportunity for Hong Kong to recruit first-rate, experienced controllers. We let this opportunity pass at our own peril and, if we fail, we will only have our mediocre bureaucrats to blame.

I agree with Mr Tyler that it is critical for the well-being and sustainability of our hub status that liberalisation is pursued carefully, and that we don't trade away our 'fifth freedom' rights - the right of an airline to pick up passengers from one foreign territory and fly them to another foreign territory - for anything less than equal value. The priority of the government's policy should be protecting the interests of Hong Kong's own airlines.

As Mr Tyler puts it, a strong home carrier with an extensive network of routes is essential to our hub status. Indeed, after 1997, Cathay Pacific has become a genuine Hong Kong-based home carrier, offering excellent connectivity for passengers. Cathay is even willing to operate less profitable routes, which testifies to its commitment as a home carrier.

Air traffic rights are negotiated between governments. If our government gives away the precious fifth freedom rights for nothing, our home carrier will be at a huge disadvantage, and a likely scenario is the emergence of unhealthy competition between airlines for business on the busy routes.

Our aviation hub status is one of our major bulwarks against the emerging global recession. It is far too important to be ruined in the hands of incompetent bureaucrats.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator