Hong Kong airport must meet global demand or risk falling behind

Julia Yan says the arguments put up by opponents of third runway do not stand up to scrutiny

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 July, 2014, 4:03am

To meet future air traffic demand, the Airport Authority is proposing to expand Hong Kong International Airport by building a third runway. The environmental impact assessment report on the project is now available for public inspection.

There have been questions about whether Hong Kong needs a third runway. Historically, air traffic growth has been closely associated with economic development. As Hong Kong is an open economy, this connection is even stronger. If a third runway is not built, its position as an international aviation hub, as well as its overall competitiveness, will be severely undermined.

Those who believe Hong Kong needs only two runways argue that London Heathrow Airport's two-runway operations allow it to "maximise the value of the runways" without affecting its competitiveness. However, this observation is not based on fact. The reality is that the number of destinations Heathrow serves has dropped 12 per cent over the past decade, while two of Europe's other major aviation hubs, Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, have increased their destinations. This has caused the UK an estimated loss of £14 billion (HK$186 billion) a year in terms of value of trade. Do we want Hong Kong to follow in London's footsteps and give away our hard-earned aviation hub status?

Some also argue that the airport's current two runways should be able to accommodate 87 million passengers annually, a projection made in 1992. This argument ignores the fact that prudent planning means responding to market changes in a timely manner.

Aviation is a global industry that has evolved considerably over the past 20 years. We have seen advances and changes in aircraft technology and type, development of air networks, and leisure and business travel trends. If we planned our airport facilities and systems based on assumptions made some 20 years ago, then we would have lagged significantly behind market demand. To incorporate current developments into our planning, the Airport Authority updates the airport's 20-year master plan every five years.

Finally, some have suggested turning Hong Kong airport into a boutique airport so that it will not need further expansion for the next few decades. However, this would defeat the airport's mission to provide all travellers with an extensive air network - including, most importantly, the people of Hong Kong. Air transport services should not be biased towards a minority of the population who can afford "boutique" services.

Since the airport began its two-runway operations, air traffic volumes have been hitting new records. In terms of passenger throughput and volume of cargo carried per aircraft, the airport is the world's most efficient airport. This achievement is the result of the government's resolute decision to expand by building a new airport at Chek Lap Kok.

The latest predictions by international air traffic expert IATA Consulting indicate that by 2030, Hong Kong airport's passenger throughput will reach almost 100 million and its cargo volume will grow to almost 9 million tonnes.

Imagine if Hong Kong were still using the single-runway Kai Tak airport. Would the people of Hong Kong be able to travel all over the world for their holidays, choosing from over 180 destinations served by more than 100 airlines? Would business travellers be able to enjoy the convenience of frequent air services and select the flight most suited to their schedule?

The bottleneck of an airport's capacity lies in its runway capacity, not in ground facilities such as terminal buildings. Today, Hong Kong airport handles an average of 1,050 flights a day, very close to the two runways' practical maximum capacity of 1,200 aircraft movements.

If Hong Kong airport does not build a third runway, it will not be able to increase its daily flight movements to meet air traffic demand. The result will be that its aviation network will shrink, with fewer direct-flight destinations and frequencies. There will also be less room for new airlines (such as low-cost carriers) to operate in Hong Kong.

As a result of the shortfall in supply, airfares will go up and service standards will inevitably decline. Both the people of Hong Kong and travellers from around the world will suffer. In the long term, Hong Kong's advantage as an international aviation hub will be weakened, and our economy and employment market will be undermined.

In addition to the damage caused to our aviation and tourism industries, the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a centre of financial services, trade and logistics will fall behind neighbouring cities.

Hong Kong International Airport owes its successes to the dedication and hard work of the people of Hong Kong. Likewise, we should nurture and treasure this valuable asset by making the right decision, one that will secure the sustainable development of Hong Kong.

Julia Yan is general manager of strategic planning and development at the Airport Authority