Improving airport's efficiency the fastest way to ease air traffic congestion

Albert Cheng says the urgency of the problem means Hong Kong cannot afford the 10-year wait for a third runway, not to mention the huge costs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 1:43am

In a desperate last-ditch effort, the Airport Authority has reportedly asked its 1,100 staff members to write to the Environmental Protection Department in the guise of individual citizens to support the proposed third runway for Hong Kong International Airport.

The government's six-week public consultation on the controversial infrastructural scheme ends tomorrow. The Airport Authority has been a staunch proponent of the idea. Its arguments are premised primarily on the claim that the existing runways are almost saturated. If we fail to take decisive action now, it warns, our position as the regional logistics hub will be taken over by competing neighbouring cities.

According to its latest presentations, the two serving runways will reach capacity ahead of the original estimate of 2019. It noted that some 80 to 90 per cent of the new flight applications filed late last year to use our airport this summer had to be rejected. Despite tightened restrictions on new routes, the first half of this year has seen a rapid growth in air traffic of nearly 6 per cent, edging towards the limit of 1,200 flights a day.

However, the Airport Authority's statistics have been refuted as largely inflated. The Airport Development Concern Network and Green Sense have blamed inefficient use of the two runways.

They noted that precious landing and take-off slots had been allotted to low-capacity, narrow-bodied aircraft destined mostly for obscure third- and fourth-tier mainland Chinese cities. This has given rise to an illusion that the two runways are about to be overloaded.

Narrow-bodied aircraft flights accounted for 70 per cent of all flights to the mainland. Mainland cities currently account for about 30 per cent of all our flight routes. The situation would be eased if mainland airliners refrained from occupying the slots with the relatively smaller planes.

According to Civil Aviation Department data, aircraft using the airport were filled to 76 per cent of their combined capacity in 2010. The figure dropped to 73 per cent in 2012. There is much room for improvement in the way the Airport Authority runs our airport.

Management performance aside, passengers will be better served with more flexibility in scheduling smaller aircraft. The figures taken as a whole show that we need a third passenger terminal, not another runway.

The third runway may end up as a white elephant. The plan was originally said to carry a price tag of HK$136 billion, but it is expected to rise. Apart from the mammoth costs, environmental objections are likely to bog down each and every step.

Green groups are worried that the civil engineering works would destroy the marine habitat of the pink dolphins for good. Even the Airport Authority's consultant has conceded that they have no idea whether the precious dolphins would return to the area after the project is completed.

Most importantly, planning and construction work would take well over a decade to complete. It would be too late to retain our competitiveness by the time it was ready for service.

The next 10 years are crucial. The crux of the matter is how to make better use of the existing runways. With more docking bays at a third terminal, we would stand a good chance of solving the problem.

The Airport Authority's strategic planning and development general manager, Julia Yan, has argued that the number of destinations Heathrow serves has fallen by 12 per cent in the past 10 years, and it is being outpaced by Amsterdam's Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle in Paris. She concluded that because Heathrow needed a third runway, so would Hong Kong. That is a shaky conclusion.

Heathrow is one of world's busiest airports and it, too, has only two runways. But Heathrow handles more flights per hour than Chek Lap Kok. One reason is Heathrow's runways are both used for take-offs and landings. In our case, one runway is dedicated for landings; the other for take-offs.

I am not totally against building a third runway. Hong Kong will eventually need an extra runway. It is a matter of timing and priority.

Hong Kong's leading position as the region's logistics hub is under threat now. We need to increase the airport's capacity to meet market demand by raising its efficiency.

Once users have switched to neighbouring options, it will be hard to lure them back.

Our time and resources will be much better spent on planning for a third passenger terminal, instead of bickering over the need for an additional runway.

We need a swift decision to tackle a pressing practical problem. There is no luxury of time right now for the dream of a third runway that will take over a decade to realise.

Albert Cheng King-hon is the past chairman of the aircraft division of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. The views in this article are those of the author.