Major expansion of two-runway capacity at airport is a flight of fancy

Manuel Sum says scope to increase movements at airport is limited

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 3:51am

How many more flights can the two runways at the Hong Kong International Airport handle? Judging by recent commentary, there are people here who believe existing runway capacity can be greatly expanded. Such a view, however, may not be supported by facts. With the city now proposing to build a third runway, it is important to consider the practical limits of the options before us.

The runway capacity has increased progressively from 50 movements per hour in 2004 to 64 in 2013, and will be further increased to 68 by 2015. There was the view that the airport could operate like London's Heathrow with up to 80 movements an hour. However, the actual runway movement rate has to be determined taking into account a combination of factors such as local environmental constraints, mix of traffic and aircraft types and airspace configuration.

The runway capacity is constrained by a number of factors specific to the airport

In fact, Heathrow's air traffic control service is provided by NATS (National Air Traffic Services) of the UK, which is the same company that conducted the consultancy study for Hong Kong and determined that the maximum runway capacity as 68 movements per hour.

Taking into account the proximity of terrain close to the airport, NATS also confirmed that the most practical and efficient operating mode for the dual runways is "segregated mode", i.e. one runway dedicated for departures and the other for arrivals. The consultant also concluded that even operating "mixed mode" for both departures and arrivals simultaneously would not bring in additional runway movements above 68 per hour.

The runway capacity is therefore constrained by a number of factors specific to the airport. The suggestion that our two-runway system would in any event accommodate 80 movements an hour has not fully taken into account the airport's operational conditions.

Hong Kong has also been working with Macau and mainland aviation authorities to optimise airspace in the Pearl River Delta. A working group established in 2004 has progressively enhanced the air traffic capacity of the delta through the addition of peripheral routes, new air route handover points and streamlined airspace configurations. In anticipation of future traffic demand, a consensus has already been reached with the mainland and Macau on the use of airspace, including the possible development of a third runway.

Manpower needs have also not been neglected. Since 2007, the Civil Aviation Department has recruited 120 student air traffic control officers; 65 have already completed training and are performing front-line operational duties as licensed controllers. While there are some suggestions that overseas air traffic controllers should be recruited to strengthen the team, the department considers that a more effective long-term measure is to recruit and train our local controllers as a reliable source of manpower supply.

Concerted efforts to expand the runway capacity and enhance terminal facilities, aircraft parking, airspace management, air traffic control systems performance and the training of aviation professionals would be crucial to support our long-term traffic growth.

Amid global competition, the sustainable development of the aviation industry in Hong Kong is facing challenges. The department and our industry partners are taking positive steps to sustain our competitive edge. Through collaboration and constructive discussions, we can strengthen our position as an international aviation hub for the benefit of Hong Kong and our future generations.

Manuel Sum is assistant director general of civil aviation (air traffic management)