Jake's View

Keep Hong Kong airport for wide-body jets and ditch need for third runway

Return to Kai Tak policy would remove officials' justification for pricey third runway

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 1:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 4:46pm

Airport chiefs are ignoring inefficiencies in the use of its two runways as they seek to justify a third, concerned groups say.

They questioned the need for the multibillion-dollar expansion of Chek Lap Kok after analysis of a million flights between 2010 and 2012 highlighted low operational efficiency of the existing runway.

SCMP, July 14

I can make a much stronger case of inefficient use of the airport than these concerned groups have done. I can make it from the Airport Authority's own studies.

Unsuitably small aircraft are flying to unsuitable destinations

Here follows an excerpt from a discussion paper written two years ago by Kevin Poole, the airport's deputy director of projects:

"... many of the working assumptions adopted in the early 1990s were based on the operating environment of Kai Tak Airport, which was highly constrained and fully stretched. At the time it was natural for airlines to maximise each valuable slot by deploying the biggest aircraft possible.

"The 1992 NAMP [New Airport Master Plan] therefore assumed that wide-bodied aircraft would comprise over 80% of aircraft movements, resulting in a high average passenger load forecast of more than 300 people per aircraft.

"The new airport at Chek Lap Kok provided more runway capacity, allowing airlines to increase their flight frequencies and service to secondary destinations. This has enabled HKIA to develop into an international and regional aviation hub, but it also led to the deployment of more narrow-bodied aircraft (mostly less than 200 seats).

"Since 2000, the average passenger load per aircraft has decreased to about 190. In other words, it will take 437,000 aircraft movements instead of the 278,000 originally estimated in the NAMP to serve 87 million passenger trips.

"In addition, from 1997 to 2010 the percentage of wide-bodied freighters decreased from 84% to 67% in favour of medium-sized aircraft. Therefore, moving 8.9 million tonnes of cargo will take 108,000 aircraft movements instead of the 66,000 forecast by the NAMP."

And there you have the big secret that the Airport Authority wishes to keep hidden from us when demanding that we build a third runway for it.

The reason that our new airport has been plugged up earlier than expected is that it has 57 per cent more passenger aircraft movements than the old airport did relative to the number of passengers it handles and 64 per cent more cargo aircraft movements.

Having two runways instead of just the single one at old Kai Tak was a convenience that the airlines exploited to run far more flights of small Boeing 737s and other such microlights, many of them half empty, to minor towns in the mainland.

And now that the new airport is reaching capacity in the number of flights it can handle, they baulk at the obvious step of reserving use of it for larger aircraft as they did at Kai Tak.

Instead they expect us to suit their convenience by building another runway at a cost of up HK$200 billion so that they can continue misusing the airport by operating unsuitably small aircraft to unsuitable destinations. We spoiled them at Chek Lap Kok and they now consider the privilege their right.

But there is a very good way of letting the truth out here. Let the mighty Hong Kong dollar speak. If the airlines think that a third runway is worth HK$200 billion in convenience to their passengers, then they should be glad to make these passengers pay for it. Just allocate landing slots by auction. When the revenue from these auctions becomes sufficient to satisfy financial markets that the airport can service a HK$200 billion bond issue, then we can hit the Go button on a third runway.

And if it is not sufficient, if the passengers on the small aircraft that Chek Lap Kok now accommodates would rather save money by flying to Shenzhen and taking a bus across the border, then we could reserve Chek Lap Kok for proper use by wide-body aircraft.

So, thank you, Mr Poole, for letting the secret slip. It hasn't slipped again since you let it out two years ago, but once was enough.