A third runway is not the answer for our airport

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 April, 2010, 12:00am

The Airport Authority recently placed a number of newspaper ads looking to hire an executive director for corporate development. The main role will be to guide its overall development and spearhead its five-year plan, which is believed to centre around the strategic planning for the construction of a third runway.

To ordinary Hongkongers, another runway may seem like a necessity in the long run. But, to those who are familiar with the aviation business, such a proposal has blatantly disregarded the actual business context. This could certainly be described as a 'sky-high' project; not only would the scale of it be huge, the cost would be astronomical, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Such a high cost would almost certainly trigger massive public resistance similar to that met by the cross-border express rail link.

Before we have fully utilised the capacity of the existing runways by increasing the number of hourly aircraft movements, building another runway would be a waste of time and money.

At present, the two runways handle 58 aircraft movements per hour, which is below standard requirements. There is definitely room for expansion.

In 2004, the then-director-general of civil aviation, Albert Lam Kwong-yu, conducted a study into how to improve runway capacity. Even back then, he pointed out that the number of aircraft movements could be increased to 66 per hour in a few years.

Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng has hired overseas experts to assess our runway capacity. Their conclusion is that our airport already has the capacity to handle between 72 and 78 aircraft movements per hour. To make that happen, all we need to do is modify the current operational procedures and increase manpower.

But the current aviation head, Norman Lo Shung-man, insisted on boosting capacity by only two movements per year due to safety and manpower reasons. The goal of 68 movements per hour might not be reached until 2013.

Despite our airport's state-of-the-art facilities, its runway capacity seriously lags behind those of our neighbours and other international cities. Both Beijing and Bangkok can handle 68 aircraft movements per hour, Singapore 66, Frankfurt 78, London's Heathrow 85, while Los Angeles can manage up to 155 aircraft per hour.

Even Guangzhou's Baiyun Airport, which also has two runways, can accommodate 60 per hour. Construction is well under way at Baiyun to build a third runway. When completed next year, it will push total capacity to 106 per hour.

Lo first used safety as a reason, saying airspace congestion was the main obstacle. But after it was disproved by the relevant mainland authority, he said expansion was limited due to manpower shortages. But manpower is more a man-made problem than anything else. We shouldn't have a problem hiring air traffic professionals from overseas if we relax recruitment policies.

Our flight-handling capacity will affect the future of our aviation industry and how we are perceived internationally. If we can't resolve this very basic capacity problem, how can we aspire to become an international aviation hub?

And if manpower shortage is the main obstacle to expansion, that means the existing runways are truly underutilised. Even if we must spend an extra HK$40 million to HK$50 million per year to hire some air traffic controllers from overseas, the economic benefits from greater runway capacity, and more visitors, would surely be exponential.

The government must explore all feasible options to maximise current capacity and not be misled into believing that a third runway is the answer. It is not, because it is only a pointless and wasteful investment.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk



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