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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 1:21am
PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 3:35am

Hong Kong must exhaust all other options before building third runway

Albert Cheng suggests ways the Airport Authority could raise its handling capacity, not least by better co-ordinating its airspace traffic


Ir. Albert Cheng is the founder of Digital Broadcasting Corporation Hong Kong Limited, a current affairs commentator and columnist. He was formerly a direct elected Hong Kong SAR Legislative Councillor. Mr Cheng was voted by Time Magazine in 1997 as one of "the 25 most influential people in new Hong Kong" and selected by Business Week in 1998 as one of "the 50 stars of Asia".  

The Airport Authority recently ran newspaper advertisements to pave the way for its plan to build a third runway and engage the public over the ongoing environmental impact assessment of the project.

I have always objected to a third runway, mainly because the airport still has not fully utilised the capacity of the existing two runways. Building a third runway is not only a waste of resources; it will also seriously affect the nearby natural environment.

The problem stems from the fact that the director general of civil aviation is trying to play safe and has thus limited aircraft movements to 64 flights per hour for the two-runway system. By 2015, aircraft movements are expected to reach 68 per hour.

This is way below international standards. Take Heathrow for example. Its two runways handle up to 80 aircraft movements per hour.

If only Hong Kong could shake off its conservative management mindset, the airport could almost certainly immediately increase its runway capacity to reach international standards. That way, we could save resources and wouldn't need a third runway.

In fact, when the airport was still under construction, a British aviation consultant set the hourly aircraft movements at 75. But civil aviation chief Norman Lo Shung-man said aircraft movements could only reach 68 by 2015, rejecting what the consultant had said.

What could be the reasons for these restrictions? One is that our airport cannot increase the hourly aircraft movements due to our restricted airspace. In other words, the airspace congestion problem is not caused by a traffic bottleneck on the runways, but by the limited airspace.

Former civil aviation chief Albert Lam Kwong-yu said previously that the Hong Kong and national aviation authorities had already reached a consensus on how to manage the airspace to the north of the airport. But the current chief appears to have rejected this consensus and chosen a regressive path instead.

That's why we should look again at the option of expanding air space in the north.

I also wonder about the Airport Authority's motives for building a third runway. It seems motivated by a sense of grandeur, rather than practicality, and is looking to expand to secure its existence.

A third runway won't really resolve the problem; even this new runway would not be fully utilised.

Another reason why the runways are underutilised is the lack of professional talent. The civil aviation department blames a lack of locally trained air traffic controllers for not being able to raise the number of aircraft movements.

This is a rather backward-looking attitude. If we have a shortage of controllers, why not recruit overseas professionals? With more air traffic controllers, we can boost runway capacity and the airport would be able to handle more aircraft movements.

Lo and his department just seem full of excuses and are resistant to change.

Another point worth focusing on is synchronising our computer communication system with that of the mainland aviation authority. Hong Kong uses the American Raytheon system at the air traffic control centre, while the mainland uses the French Thales system.

If we can synchronise our computer systems, no doubt we would be able to further enhance communication and help boost traffic capacity.

I am not blindly objecting to airport expansion, but cost effectiveness is important.

At present, our airport is rather busy and congested mainly because of a lack of areas to park aircraft. To resolve this, we don't need a third runway, but rather a third terminal to increase parking spaces.

With the mainland's rapid economic development, the role of Hong Kong's airport as an international aviation hub will gradually diminish, as it is replaced by the airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen as economic expansion focuses on the Pearl River Delta.

Even if our airport is not replaced completely, the shift of focus will lessen our role and competitive edge. That's why building a third runway would be ineffective and would only create a white elephant.

Hong Kong needs development, but not ineffective development that ultimately turns into wasteful white elephants and stirs public opposition and discontent.

We should focus our resources and strengths to further enhance our development advantages. We need to always be one step ahead in our mindset to remain in a leading position. To increase our competitiveness and advantages doesn't mean expansion.

A sensible approach is to increase our airport's hourly aircraft movements to 75 and build a third passenger terminal as soon as possible. Big is not always effective - substance is far more important.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk


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One of the few occasions that "captam" agrees with Albert Cheng!
But you forgot to mention Hong Kong's already diminishing role as an air cargo hub for Mainland exporters and the fact that passenger throughput will also decline in about two years when the high speed rail link opens............ There's more .....growth in private aviation should also be blocked because it is selfish for tycoons flying in private jets to take away take-off and landing slots from large commercial flights.
Bravo, an excellent piece. I wish more people like Mr Cheng would call the concrete lobby's bluff.

We have an excellent and rather large airport for the size of our city, even when taking into account our hub status. Let's indeed use all available other options before pouring more concrete into the sea at vast expense.

Let's also have a tough look at all those Cathay (and other) transfer passengers. What value do they possibly add except to Cathay profits and airport retail outlets? How many flight movements are the result of people merely touching down and then taking off again? And sure, they can come and fly Cathay if they want to, but at the very least let's have them pay a price for the infrastructure they are profiting from by imposing a transfer passenger tax.
"the role of Hong Kong's airport as an international aviation hub will gradually diminish, as it is replaced by the airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen as economic expansion focuses on the Pearl River Delta."

You are not serious are you? Shenzhen a hub? A regional airport no?
No to the third runway! especially with that price tag!
Frankfurt managed to build an entire terminal with a run way in 2010 for equivalent of ~HK$ 40 Billion; the minimum wage in Germany is more than 4 times that of Hong Kong's.... So with a cost structure that is more than 4 times that of Hong Kong's - why is our runway 3 times more expensive not less?
Thank you for delivering a trueful assessment. Here are two additional points in objecting a third runway:
1. If the cause of less than optimal landing/takeoff rate that is due to lack of airspace, self-evidently three or more runways are superfluence.
2. When logic can't carry the argument, then there must be the vested interest at work. Perhaps, part of national security requirement, or someone will have a potential monetary gain. HK shouldn't be paying for the latter especially.
I am not sure if you are joking... in the event you are not, then two reasons.
One, Shenzhen is a growing city and must eventually fully utilize its airport capacity, so that is not really a long run solution.
Two, I would surmise there are many sensitivities whenever there is mention of anything related to closer integration.
The logic is that runways in the sea are more expensive than those on land
Perhaps it is time for HK to seriously consider rolling two controversial projects into one. Reclaim land near Chek Lap Kok by using the garbage collected from HK. HKIA gets their land reclamation (be it for more terminals or for more runways) while residents don't have to fight for their NIMBY arguments.
But I suspect HKIA will suddenly have their own NIMBY argument. Probably say that the garbage will attract birds and so on and increase chances of bird strike; and that people will find it unsightly and foul smelling when flying through Chek Lap Kok.
Good points. The theoretical maximum for flight movements on a single runway is 44 per hour. In practice, 40 flight movements per hour per runway is achievable for dual runway airports with sufficient runway separation and London Heathrow is a good example of this.
I read the HKIA Airport Master Plan 2030 (HKIA AMP2030), including the consultant’s report regarding limitations on the current dual runway system. Supposedly, airspace congestion and terrain features such as Lantau Peak, Castle Peak, Tai Mo Shan restrict the current dual runway system to a maximum capacity of only 34 flight movements per hour. I had always been suspect of this excuse, and Albert seems to confirms this. If HK’s CAD has arbitrarily decided to restrict itself leading to airspace congestion, then this policy should be reviewed. Interesting point to note is that they already knew about these limitations when they decided to the airport at Chek Lap Kok.
Another point against the third runway is that according to projections on demand in the HKIA AMP2030, the airport will be at or near maximum capacity around 2030, five years after the completion of the third runway. Long story short, we will be scrambling to meet demand again in 2030! Instead of the third runway stop gap option, there should be consideration for a second dual runway airport, perhaps to the southwest of Lantau island.
@"there should be consideration for a second dual runway airport, perhaps to the southwest of Lantau island."
Why build another airport S.W. of Lantau when you already have an underutilized one just north of Lantau................. It's called Shenzhen............... and part of China just as we are!


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