Hong Kong's third runway proposal

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 : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 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