Third runway will give HK the edge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2012, 12:00am


Staying competitive requires satisfying customers and outshining rivals. Hong Kong cannot do either properly unless it expands its airport. Passenger and cargo traffic are growing at such a dramatic rate that capacity is projected to be reached in eight years. The Executive Council has made the right decision to back in principle the government's plans for a third runway.

Maintaining aviation links that surpass the competition will ensure Hong Kong retains its position as Asia's leading financial centre. The opening in 1998 of Chek Lap Kok airport helped boost our international standing and enabled us to take full advantage of the mainland's economic boom. Chinese, regional and global firms were convinced to set up offices here, creating jobs and opportunities. Another runway will further those prospects and improve the environment for creating new industries.

To do nothing, or take half-measures by boosting the capacity of the existing runways, will only lead to the sorry situation faced by London. Runway utilisation at Heathrow and Gatwick airports is at about 99 per cent, leading to severe overcrowding and delays. The city's status as an international hub has been slipping and increasingly it is lagging Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dubai. Jobs and trade are consequently at risk to rivals.

It is a situation Hong Kong will face as early as the end of the decade should it sit on its hands while airports on the mainland and in the region expand. The more difficult it is to move people and goods through our airport, the less attractive it will be for entry, transit and trade. The mainland is continuing to surge economically and, although the double-digit growth of past decades is slowing, the forecast numbers remain impressive. Not capitalising by significantly boosting runway capacity will mean losing business and jobs.

A new runway will be expensive. At an estimated HK$136 billion, it will be our city's costliest-ever undertaking. But bountiful government finances and the commonplace practice among airport authorities of levying surcharges on passengers would seem to make funding uncomplicated.

More problematic are environmental concerns from the project, which will require 650 hectares of sea reclamation. Every effort would be taken to ensure that the impact on air quality, endangered dolphin populations and fisheries are minimised.

Exco has rightly taken a cautious approach. Thorough environmental impact assessments have to be in the government's hands before it can make a final decision, expected in 2015. Lawmakers have to balance the economic benefits against the overall cost and risks. Ultimately, though, our future depends on staying a step ahead of our rivals - and a crucial part is having the region's premier airport.