Airport Authority's fixation with third runway is blinding it to other options

Albert Cheng says more feasible ways to reduce airspace congestion must be considered, not least because of the hefty costs of airport expansion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 10:56am

Over the years, the Airport Authority has been funding research and more research to legitimise its claim that Hong Kong needs a third runway. The findings have boiled down to a single conclusion - that the proposed three-runway system is environmentally acceptable and economically indispensable.

Another such report - an environmental impact assessment - was submitted to a subcommittee of the Advisory Council on the Environment for endorsement earlier this month. In a nutshell, the document concludes that mitigation measures can limit the potential damage to the environment to within permissible levels.

This is what sociologists refer to as "instrumental rationality" in action. It is all about finding ways to achieve one's defined goals with the available resources, whether or not the goal is worth the cost.

Thus, a person who believes he is a dog might be considered instrumentally rational as long as he acts in accordance with canine beliefs and desires. If he's got his eye on a bone for lunch, he would yap and howl in order to get it.

The third runway is the metaphorical bone for the Airport Authority. To the exclusion of other considerations, it has convinced itself that a third runway is the only way to keep Hong Kong vibrant as an aviation hub. The feasibility studies - economic, technical and environmental - are just a means to that preconceived end.

The authority's latest bark came in the form of its environmental report.

Green groups have dismissed the assessment as a whitewash. More importantly, members of the council's subcommittee were sceptical, too.

In particular, they voiced doubts that the Chinese white dolphins, which would be displaced during construction, would come back to a new marine park as claimed.

After three days of deliberation, the panel withheld its recommendations. Members said the report lacked hard data to substantiate its claims that the environmental impact would be acceptable.

This should be a wake-up call for the authority.

Environmentalists say there are alternative ways to solve the supposed congestion at Chek Lap Kok.

Green Sense's Roy Tam Hoi-pong noted that the Chinese military required flights leaving Chek Lap Kok to enter mainland airspace at a minimum height of 4,800 metres. To do this, planes from Hong Kong have to first head south and fly in circles to climb to that altitude, wasting up to 20 minutes of flight time. The reverse applies for flights landing in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's existing two runways are designed to accommodate between 82 and 86 flights an hour. The tally actually achieved is fewer than that, thanks to this "sky wall".

What Tam did not point out was that, whatever the military requirement, there is a stronger reason why careful coordination is necessary : the Hong Kong and Shenzhen runways are positioned close by, at right angles to one another.

During the economic slowdown in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Shenzhen airport was looking for buyers. Some Hong Kong businessmen were serious about acquiring the facility. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong authorities sat on their hands and failed to help the businessmen clinch a deal. The window of opportunity was lost.

If both Chek Lap Kok and Shenzhen were under the same command, aircraft movements could be more easily coordinated, within one large airspace rather than the two disparate ones now.

The authority's executive director for corporate development, Wilson Fung Wing-yip, told the press that once the third runway was operational, the sky wall problem would be solved. But he did not spell out how.

He has put the cart before the horse. If the Hong Kong authorities can be more determined in dismantling this invisible barrier, taxpayers will not have to foot an estimated bill of some HK$200 billion for an additional runway.

This should be a big enough economic incentive to demand that our negotiators try harder.

Could we pay off Shenzhen with that amount to ask them to move their airport to a location where the sky wall will no longer be relevant to us? This is, of course, a long shot.

The former head of the Observatory, Lam Chiu-ying, suggested a more realistic solution. He argues that the airport's capacity can be markedly improved by allowing the use of more wide-body planes.

Building on that premise, we can follow the practice of other advanced economies, whereby priority is given to bigger aircraft. The remaining capacity can then be auctioned to smaller planes. This can boost efficiency and raise revenues.

We may eventually need a third runway decades down the road. Meanwhile, we don't need to act like a dog.

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