• Mon
  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 1:23am

Hong Kong's role as air hub doomed unless third runway is built soon

For Hong Kong to remain as a regional hub, the government must proceed soon with building a third runway at Chek Lap Kok or risk losing out to rivals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2014, 2:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 April, 2014, 10:56am

Can Shenzhen airport and the other Pearl River Delta airports ride in like white knights to save the day for Hong Kong's increasingly congested Chek Lap Kok?

As environmental lobbyists continue to grab at any available straw to block construction of a third runway at the airport, it has often been claimed that airports in the delta can fly in to Hong Kong's rescue.

The longer the delay, the more severe will be the diversion of business activity

These lobbyists are not wrong to force the Hong Kong government to turn over every possible stone to find an alternative to building a third runway, which would be horribly expensive and the construction of which would inevitably result in inconveniences and dislocations.

But I can say with confidence they will find exactly what I found when I went through the same stone-turning exercise three years ago. The frustrating but consistent finding of the study I published in June 2011 - "Meeting future capacity challenges at the Hong Kong International Airport: Assessing the potential of alternatives to constructing a third runway" - was that we have no choice but to press ahead as speedily as possible with a third runway.

From as early as 2016, we face increasingly severe airport congestion, whatever temporary palliatives are discovered. The longer the delay, the more severe will be the diversion of business activity to competing regional hubs.

And I can promise you, I turned over every stone I could find: extending airport operating hours; increasing flights per hour from the current 60 to 80 or so; shifting flights to Macau or Zhuhai; collaborating with Shenzhen; and prioritising wide-bodied aircraft, as we were forced to do in the dying days of Kai Tak airport.

I combed the world for examples of neighbouring airports that collaborated with each other in air traffic management. I compared the five airports in the delta with the five surrounding London to see where synergies might be developed. Each avenue of investigation ran quickly into a dead end:

  • Flights per hour can be increased only gradually, and - because of the location in the shadow of Lantau Peak - can never be increased to the levels of an airport like Heathrow.
  • Airport operating hours were already being extended at maximum speed, with limits imposed by the need to maintain the runway and ensure other maintenance and safety work.
  • Macau's ultimate capacity, as with Zhuhai, is pitifully small, in the region of 7.2 million passengers - woefully inadequate for Hong Kong's airport, facing growth of four million passengers per year.
  • Shenzhen was expanding like Topsy to keep abreast of its own demand growth: there may be a tiny window between now and 2016 when Shenzhen could "gift" to Hong Kong some spare capacity, but after that, Shenzhen itself will face capacity constraints. And to put it politely, Shenzhen's airport managers made it clear that they had no intention of gifting runway capacity to what they see as their primary competitor.

As I twisted and turned around every potential solution, the same answer returned again and again. Whatever palliatives Hong Kong discovers, we will be subject to capacity constraints from 2016, and they would become increasingly severe thereafter.

Worse still, even if the imminent environmental impact assessment for the third runway proves positive and the Legislative Council gives speedy approval to the gigantic funding need, there is no realistic possibility of the third runway being ready before 2024 - by which time, on my calculations of passenger and cargo growth in the coming decade, there will already be a pressing need for a fourth runway.

In 2011, my report to airport officials and government bosses was bleak and unwelcome. If we were going to need a fourth runway by 2024, then they ought to be pressing for that now.

And if the costs of a third and fourth runway were as high as predicted, then a truly strategic government would be looking to build a wholly new airport, since it would clearly be cheaper. You can imagine the hyperventilation in government that followed.

The message from the data is nevertheless crystal clear: Hong Kong faces an urgent choice - either to move at speed to build a third runway, at the same time capturing every possible palliative to buy time, or wilfully to "gift away" to Shenzhen, Guangzhou or other as-yet built regional airports all the growth arising from Hong Kong beyond the middle of this decade.

The harm of following the second option would be incalculable, as the virtuous economic circle created by Hong Kong's rare international hubbing role dissolved and dispersed to other hubs in the region only too eager to capture business from the city.

The urgent need is for decisive government action. But as we all know, decisiveness is not something strongly associated with our current administration. We should all be anxious about the price we will pay for procrastination.

David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group


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This article is now closed to comments

Oh no! Fear! Fire! Run! Danger! We will lose our competitiveness! Other cities will become faster/bigger/better/higher! We are all going to sink into oblivion and then die of irrelevantis acutis! Fear! Panic! Pestilence!

So if Mr Dodwell's calculations are correct, the third runway is already dead on arrival. We need a fourth runway, and actually, we need a whole new airport.

Or perhaps Mr Dodwell's calculations are not correct. How about we check that out first?

Either way, I don't give a rat's **** about the environmental impact blablabla. I care about the HKD 87 billion this thing is supposed to cost taxpayers (and we all know how such budgets tend to inexplicably grow over time).

So show us some calculations Mr Dodwell. I would like to see it demonstrated why a city of 7~8 million needs more than the 350~400,000 pa flight movements we can handle with the current airport and its two runways.
I would also like to see it explained what the benefit to Hong Kong is of being an 'air hub,' by which I am mainly referring to the millions of transfer passengers Cathay runs through the airport every year. How many flight movements does that constitute and why don't we tax this away?

But most importantly - if there such an enormously pressing need for more runways, then why doesn't the industry pay for the HKD 87 billion themselves? Can a private consortium be formed that will cough up the money for the runway, and then lease it out to HKIA for good money?
NO we don't need another runway, or cruise pier, or high speed train, and definitely not another theme park. Stop building more stuff because we just can't fit it all in this tiny little place packed with lots of people already. We don't need more development expansion. We need to fix the problems at home first, too many to mention. There is a point at which urban development is a negative impact on society, and we have passed it long ago. And stop looking over our shoulders to see who is catching up or ahead. Only losers do that.
Or can the HK "leaders" go crawling, hats in hands, to their overlords in Beijing begging for yet another handout largess in the form of funding for the runway as it will benefit tourism to China from the gateway (HK) and to HK from the extra millions of China shopping junket tourists?
Just have a look at the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group's web site and see who their Hong Kong representatives really are.
Apart from the usual ubiquitous big property developers we also have Richard Li topping the list......... "No thank you" many in Hong Kong would say .
And look at one of Apec's recent claimed "accomplishments" :- in August 2010 they organized a "Transport Safety Forum" .
I wonder what airline passengers flying between KL and Beijing would have to think about this!
And would Mr. Dodwell like to comment on why a huge chunk of Cathay Pacific's cargo fleet sits idle and mothballed on the ground?
Even Cathay's top officials now admit that the fall off of cargo movements is probably due to a structural and not a cyclical change in Hong Kong air cargo throughput.
How much are you paid for writing this "xxxx"?
what about the SROI report ?
that is what killed Heathrow's expansion
in any case this is HKG where truth does not matter - just package it nice and the DAB will vote for it in return for other deals from the Devil that is HK Govt
HK's best days are over. Now its a choice of competing to the end with mainland projects which is a low quality of life, high cost, polluted, crowded future, or not competing which leads to a even more crowded, even more polluted, even worse future. Its a competition for the least worst future now. But its not just HK's problem, its true globally wherever these new competitors decide to show up and overwhelm locals funded by cheapest labor and cheapest money with no sense of quality of life or concerns about the environment, rampant disregard for everyone else... HK is not alone but the problem is going to be a long and tough road to before its fixed.
I support to build the third runway for HK International Aiprort. The reason why HK falls behind will be actually caused by the fact that many stupid/incapable people have a say to the governance and policy. These people can't even manage themselves and just point this and that without assessing whether or not they are qualified to say.
....and your qualifications are....?


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