Airport risks stalling as regional rivals soar
Air transport has become increasingly important to Hong Kong's economy, given that the city is now an international aviation hub. Since the global economic recovery, we have witnessed a huge jump in exports and re-exports, and a healthy rebound in air cargo volumes and air traffic movement this year. Air traffic between Shanghai and Hong Kong has more than doubled since May, because of the World Expo.
The recent Dragonair labour dispute shows the industry is stretched to the limit and unable to cope with the growing demand. Our air transport and air cargo industry has many underlying problems. If the government doesn't tackle them urgently, it could see the demise of one of Hong Kong's pillar industries.
We face intense competition in air transport in the Pearl River Delta region and have been gradually downgraded to being just a small entry point into the mainland rather than a gateway to Asia and the rest of the world.
Our mainland competitors have been jostling to overtake each other and fighting for the top position. Hong Kong will definitely be left behind if it just maintains the status quo.
Our fundamental problem is a lack of basic infrastructure facilities and our inability to respond to increased aircraft movements due to mismanagement and short-sightedness. In order to strengthen the city's status as an international aviation hub and enhance our competitiveness, a third runway is needed to cope with growing demand. But, for the interim, we must also try to maximise the existing runway capacity.
Unfortunately, the director general of Civil Aviation, Norman Lo Shung-man, is not changing with the times. He cites insufficient manpower as an excuse for not increasing the hourly air traffic movements for both runways.
At present, Beijing registers up to 1,400 landings and takeoffs daily. That is expected to rise to 1,600 by 2015. Shanghai has two airports: Hongqiao has 900 flight movements per day; Pudong 500. After the opening of its third runway, Guangzhou now handles about 700 aircraft movements a day.
With two runways, our airport has a capacity of 62 aircraft movements per hour and it's hoped that, by 2015, the daily capacity will reach 800 - up from last year's daily average of 765.
Beijing also has two runways, like us, but because it has more air traffic controllers to handle more flight movements, it has maximised its existing runway capacity.
Even when we have a third runway, without sufficient air traffic controllers, our wings will still be clipped in terms of reaching optimal operational capacity. Our capacity obviously lags behind those of other major mainland cities. But, despite stiff competition ahead, there is still no time frame for a decision to build a third runway.
The excuse from civil aviation officials - that we cannot handle increased capacity because of insufficient air traffic controllers - can easily be resolved by recruiting from overseas.
Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng already has her hands full dealing with local transport and housing problems. It is understandable if it may be difficult for her to overrule the aviation chief's decision not to expand runway capacity.
A constructive way forward would be to set up an independent aviation bureau to help strategise air transport and airport development.
Attitude is as important as ability. To maintain our stability and prosperity, those vying for the chief executive post in 2012 would do well to expand their vision beyond social and housing issues.
The truth is, we don't lack the resources; we lack the will to change sometimes.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org