No denying connectivity fuels Hong Kong's success
Do we need a third runway for Hong Kong International Airport? Twenty years ago, a similar question was asked: do we need a new international airport? The then British administration's airport and core infrastructure plan - dubbed a 'rose garden' - was ridiculed for being too ambitious and criticised for being too lavish as it entailed the construction of a man-made island, making the new airport one of the most expensive in the world.
I served on the New Airport Consultative Committee at that time and we went through the same round of public queries now raised about the third runway - cost control, environmental impact and whether the new airport would become a white elephant.
Some critics challenged the government's air traffic forecast figures, arguing that there was just no need to replace Kai Tak airport, and all we had to do was divert some air traffic to neighbouring airports in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Macau. Others doubted the need for a two-runway design, insisting that the second runway would probably be idle.
The outcome speaks for itself. Passenger traffic shot up from below 30 million in 1998 when the new airport opened, to 50 million in about a decade, and cargo traffic from some 1.6 million tonnes to over 4 million tonnes.
If we are to believe a report by the International Air Transport Association's consulting arm, commissioned by the Airport Authority, the air traffic growth in the Pearl River Delta region will rise to 387 million annual passenger trips and 18 million tonnes of cargo by 2030. If Hong Kong does not aspire to meet this forecast demand, other regional airports, for example Guangzhou's Baiyun airport, will do it.
We can either wait to meet demand when it materialises, or leverage into a growth opportunity and create the demand. The critics and sceptics of Chek Lap Kok two decades ago opted for the conservative approach; they did not see the demand. If we had gone along that route, Kai Tak might still be with us, and because capacity constrains demand, Hong Kong's role as a global transport hub would have been diminished.
The soundness of the airport expansion plan hinges not only on it addressing public concerns about cost-effectiveness and environmental control, but more critically on how it could reinforce the city's overall connectivity. Any talk about a third runway has to face up to several important challenges.
First, in order to maintain Chek Lap Kok's premier role and to tap into the regional air transport growth potential, Hong Kong has to be better connected to the mainland (not just within the Pearl River Delta) and other parts of the world, so that it has high-level accessibility both ways.
Second, air space cannot be taken for granted, especially over the mainland where it is highly regulated.
The optimistic forecasts assume that new demand would be met by an increase in transport services, but that also requires a more optimal use of limited air space. Hong Kong has to have good rapport with other regional airports to create synergy.
Third, the Airport Authority's master plan also alluded to the competition from the high-speed rail system. Instead of seeing this as necessarily undercutting the airport's role, a proactive approach would be to seek synergy and integration between air and rail transport, to provide the most convenient and time-saving way of travelling. This is a challenge not only for Hong Kong but also for city airports in mainland China and Europe.
The third runway proposal is not just part of the Airport Authority's business plan. It should be viewed as pertinent to Hong Kong's overall regional positioning and strategic future.
The present public consultation is a timely process for the whole community to ponder the city's future transport networks, and to gain a wide buy-in of the strategic directions ahead.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank