Never too late

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am


Acolleague who recently passed through Bahrain's airport at 3am was surprised at how bustling it was despite the hour. The giant shopping mall that is attached was thronged with people awaiting connecting flights, all seemingly oblivious to the time of day. Hong Kong's airport gets six times as many passengers a year, but its two terminals are virtually a wasteland between 1am and 7am. The anomaly raises all manner of questions about the government's push for a third runway.

Projected to cost HK$86.2 billion in 2010 terms, another runway would be Hong Kong's single most expensive infrastructure project. The government's justification is that passenger and cargo numbers have increased substantially since the airport opened at Chek Lap Kok 13 years ago. Authorities say growth will continue unabated and that all manner of benefits will be lost without another landing strip.

We've been given one other option. In its consultation paper, the government has offered a second choice, an upgrade of existing facilities to handle more capacity, which would cost about HK$23.4 billion. But there is something else that we can do: make better use of what we've got.

I profess to know nothing about the workings of transport infrastructure, but am well aware that our government has a knack of getting its projections wrong, at times wildly so. In 1995, it estimated that the population in 2011 would be as much as 8.1 million; to the end of last year, it was 7.1 million. The thinking behind such figures is why we have the massively expensive and much-underused Lok Ma Chau spur rail line and the highway between Tsing Yi and Sha Tin with the extravagant Stonecutters Bridge.

Optimistic estimates were used as justification for the HK$66.9 billion high-speed rail link with the mainland, for which we weren't given a choice. Our views are sought on the airport, but both options involve large amounts of taxpayers' money, many contracts and much pouring of concrete. Making more efficient use of what we already have by hiring more air traffic controllers, increasing capacity on the existing runways and encouraging more overnight flights will come in at a fraction of the cost.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of full-time, long-term jobs would be created. People would be needed to staff the airport, work in the shops and restaurants in the terminals and drive buses and trains. That, in turn, creates employment elsewhere. Our airport could be a 24-hour operation, just as in Bahrain and dozens of other cities.

I've been anecdotally given three reasons this is not possible: the noise from aircraft, a lack of demand and safety. First, noise from our airport comfortably falls within international standards, as Airport Authority assessments show. There can be no demand while there is no choice. Lowering landing fees and charges to encourage budget carriers to use our airport, specifically at night, would convince many passengers to travel at times that they would not normally. And as for safety, Gatwick airport outside London uses a single runway for take-offs and landings and manages up to 50 flights an hour, around the clock, 10 fewer than Hong Kong presently achieves with two runways.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post