Great debate on HK$80b third runway begins

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
 

Some sharp questions will be asked about the government's proposed HK$80 billion third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport when a consultation on the project begins on Thursday.

The aviation industry is united in its call for a third runway, believing it is needed for Hong Kong to maintain its position as a leading aviation hub in the region. But critics are quick to point out that there are cheaper options, such as forming a strategic alliance with nearby Shenzhen airport.

A proposed rail link, estimated at HK$50 billion, would connect the two and many hope that by pooling resources, both airports could reduce the need for unnecessary expansion. The idea of the rail link is being considered by the government, although a detailed plan will not be ready for two years.

The Civic Party's vice-chairman, Albert Lai Kwong-tak, said the government should table both proposals to the public for consideration.

'Nearly 30 per cent of our flights go to the mainland,' Lai said. 'If those passengers can go to Shenzhen airport by using the airport link, we may not need an extra runway.' He led a popular campaign against a project to link Hong Kong with the mainland's high-speed rail network and was behind a recent judicial review against the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

But supporters of the new runway said the two projects were not mutually exclusive.

A person familiar with the situation said the proposed railway was never meant to be a replacement for the third runway.

'Most of that 30 per cent patronage is from direct flights between Hong Kong and Beijing and Shanghai. Those passengers may not want to take a detour to Shenzhen airport, even if there is a rail link between them,' the source said.

'The link is meant to open a whole new market for local travellers who can go to Shenzhen and fly from there to second- and third-tier mainland cities that do not have direct flights with Hong Kong.'

The rail link was once classified as one of 10 major infrastructure projects in 2008. But a lack of obvious benefits has seen it being put on hold for further study.

The Airport Authority estimates that the two runways at Chek Lap Kok will run out of capacity by 2020. Air traffic will have to be slowed if there is no third runway.

But even if the runway can be justified economically, it remains to be seen if it can pass environmental impact tests.

Some environmentalists have raised concerns over the possible impacts on air quality and the endangered Chinese white dolphins. They say the government needs to come up with plans to lessen the damage.

Executives close to the runway project say that, while a new reclamation method will be adopted to minimise disturbance to marine life, changes to aircraft directions will also alleviate noise problems faced by residents on the island of Ma Wan.

'The south runway, whose flight path is closest to Ma Wan, will serve as a backup when the new runway on the northern side of the existing north runway comes into place.'

Air passenger and cargo volume at Hong Kong airport rose 10.3 per cent to 50.92 million and 23.3 per cent to 4.13 million tonnes respectively last year. The two businesses continued to expand during the first four months this year.

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