More infrastructure won't make Hong Kong airport more competitive

Albert Cheng says the north Lantau commercial development plan and the third runway are unneeded extravagance and should be scrapped

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 7:24pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 5:31am

The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project that was planned before the handover will finally be completed in 2016.

But times have changed from when it was conceived: the convergence of Hong Kong and the mainland has already been made possible in many ways, due to the 24-hour open border and upcoming high-speed railway. As a result, the bridge has lost the economic function that it was supposed to serve, which means it might easily turn into a white elephant.

Since Leung Chun-ying took over as chief executive, he has strongly advocated the development of a commercial city on land to the north of the airport and near the AsiaWorld-Expo. It will feature commercial towers, exhibition space and tourism facilities, as well as shopping outlets. This development is meant to facilitate the opening of the bridge.

The project, spearheaded by one of Leung's tycoon supporters, Vincent Lo Hong-sui, seems to have encountered heavy opposition from Airport Authority chairman Marvin Cheung Kin-tung. Lo's proposal to build a mega commercial complex would affect construction of the third runway.

The tug of war was eventually won by Cheung, which means that the size of the commercial complex will be greatly reduced and the focus will now be on hotel and retail development.

As a result, Lo has resigned from his post as head of the Airport Authority's infrastructural planning committee.

This project is not new; the same idea was proposed during the era of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, in 2001. At that time, the plan was meant to support development of the Pearl River Delta region. But, 13 years on, things have changed and the original concept is outdated.

On the surface, the plan is to support the future development of Hong Kong's northeast, but in reality it may only benefit the property developers.

The aviation industry is a significant economic pillar of Hong Kong and it is of utmost importance for the government to cement the city's status as an international aviation hub.

During the Tung era, the plan was to develop Hong Kong into the Asia-Pacific region's most important aviation hub to lead the development of the delta region. But due to the rapid development of adjacent airports, and the accompanying intense competition, Hong Kong has only managed to maintain a competitive advantage in terms of international routes.

Our airport has become less competitive in many other ways. There's a general consensus that something must be done to make the airport more competitive. I basically agree with the idea. But building a third runway isn't the answer.

Because of the bureaucracy and regressive attitude of Civil Aviation Department officials, we are not maximising the use of the two existing runways. The building of a third runway will not solve our immediate problems.

Furthermore, it will be a waste of resources and have a negative impact on nearby natural habitat and the environment.

The airport commercial complex is a wasteful project only catering to the shopping needs of mainland tourists arriving under the individual visa scheme. It has overlooked the undesirable domino effect on existing shopping centres in the urban areas on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. In the end, it will bring more negative effects than positive ones.

To maintain Hong Kong's competitiveness as an international aviation hub, we should not blindly push on with enormous infrastructure development; we should improve our current facilities. We have two airport terminals, but Terminal Two is underused . We must enhance its existing facilities to help increase the number of landings and take-offs for both runways. This could boost our airport handling capacity.

Therefore, we should abandon ineffective and wasteful plans such as the commercial complex or accompanying projects for the third runway. Instead, we should develop the 120,000 square metres of land to the north of the airport and the AsiaWorld-Expo area into a fully equipped modern airport terminal.

On top of this, to better develop our conference and exhibition industry, the government should consider merging the running of AsiaWorld-Expo with the third-phase expansion plan of the Convention and Exhibition Centre. This way, all resources can be better utilised and help enhance this pillar industry.

Hong Kong undoubtedly needs to continue with its development but, as we face rapid changes, we need to be practical and realistic in setting goals. If the pro-government camp has Hong Kong's best interests at heart, it must abandon all political differences and put Hong Kong first at all times.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.