Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge

Collaboration with airports in delta region the way to go

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2011, 12:00am

Despite the huge public relations campaign befitting a project estimated to cost a hefty HK$136 billion, by far the largest in Hong Kong's history, my minority view is that building a third runway is neither urgent, nor necessary.

If official projections are correct, our current airport facilities will reach full capacity in 2020. According to the official story, it will be at least a decade before the new runway can be ready for use. The conclusion officials would like us to reach is that we have to decide now. Given the political climate, this is impossible. So, the best way forward is to expand capacity as soon as possible.

Upgrading the present infrastructure would cost less than half the price of the new runway and is therefore more cost-effective. It can fill the demand gap for now, and at the same time give us room to explore the ultimate solution: co-operating with other airports in the vicinity without unnecessary duplication and competition.

Commercial airports also operate in Macau, Zhuhai and Shenzhen; all vying for the same pie. Shenzhen is already set to add two runways this year to its existing one. So if we do decide to build our additional runway, the end result will be too much capacity and over-competition.

With the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge likely to be completed in the latter half of this decade, and Zhuhai airport under Hong Kong management, it makes economic sense to consolidate and rationalise both airports' facilities for optimal use. With this trump card in our hand, we can then negotiate with Shenzhen to include its airport under the big umbrella, as this would be the most efficient arrangement, and a win-win solution for all.

This is all the more so if, like me, you are sceptical about the optimistic official traffic projections. Advances in modern communications technology have already made a lot of commercial travelling unnecessary. Much more can be achieved, quicker and cheaper, through basically free internet video conferencing and file-sharing.

For those who do need to travel, high-speed railways will probably be the preferred choice, especially for the busier short- and medium-haul traffic. The demand trend for air travel is not relentlessly up; instead, it is likely to flatten or even drop.

As a result, the expanded Shenzhen airport, which will cater more for the domestic market of short- and medium-haul flights, would have to fight for its life.

Should we make the wrong decision, we would be facing a similar situation after our expansion; the only result is going to be cut-throat competition between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, which is by no means a happy outcome for anyone.

But, if we refrain from undue expansion and are near capacity, we would have a lot to offer Shenzhen airport, and we could take the lead role.

After such consolidation and rationalisation, not only would we spend much less, but we would also have a lot more capacity under our management, putting us in a much better position to compete against Baiyun airport in Guangzhou, which is currently also undergoing massive expansion.

And if Hong Kong and Shenzhen do not join hands, both will end up losers in the race. That is all the more reason we should not go it alone and build an expensive runway that is doomed to be underutilised.

Last, but definitely not least, is the environmental consideration. Reclaiming a large piece of land in the river estuary - no matter how you look at it and no matter what remedial measures would be undertaken - is environmentally harmful and will certainly face very loud objections from the public, especially green groups.

Viewing the problem from this angle, if we do have a choice - a better and more viable one in our case - why dump a lot of unnecessary and expensive dirt into the sea? Surely, it is best to leave the waters and the dolphins alone.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development