Opponents of third runway are losing the argument and public support

Albert Cheng says to galvanise the Hong Kong people, activists must focus on the real reason the airport plan won't work - airspace issues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 10:55am

Since the Executive Council's decision last month to bypass the legislature to fund a third runway at Chek Lap Kok, concern groups have tried various tactics to derail the project. Their actions have so far failed to gain traction.

Several grass-roots bodies have launched signature campaigns. Others have demonstrated at Hong Kong International Airport. Yet, there is no sign of the protests snowballing into a mass movement similar to the one in January 2010, against the local section of the express rail link to Guangzhou, when legislators who voted in favour of the scheme had to be escorted by police to safety amid a sea of angry protesters.

The absence of popular support stems from the groups' failure to articulate why the runway is unacceptable. The arguments put forward by their leaders simply do not resonate with citizens.

In a recent newspaper article, activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said: "The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong citizens, while paying attention to the third runway controversy, have no intention at all to reflect on their way of life, which involves taking more and more frequent flights."

To follow through on his logic, the best solution to airport congestion is to fly less. This anti-development attitude may be popular within a small circle of "progressive" youths. Yet, it borders on the ridiculous and can hardly serve to galvanise support for their campaign.

Other activists insist it is unfair for the public to foot the bill. They argue that the airline companies should pay because they stand to benefit most. Taxes aside, airliners have to pay various fees and charges to park and use the airport facilities. It is unheard of for them to also be held financially responsible for the construction of terminals and runways.

If they were made to pay, would they then be given access to the new runway according to the amount of their respective contribution? Such ill-considered reasons against the third runway will only give more ammunition to those in support.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that Hong Kong needs a third runway in the long run and to build a new terminal immediately to provide more parking space. These facilities are indispensable for our future overall interests.

The crux of the issue is that the existing runways' capacity has yet to be maximised, due to the poor management of both the Airport Authority and the Civil Aviation Department.

It is far more than a matter of hardware. Issues like airspace congestion and lack of aviation-related specialists have yet to be resolved. Any attempt to build a third runway is doomed to be a waste of time, money and human resources, if such software problems persist.

A clear and credible articulation of the reasons for action is a prerequisite to mobilise people. The same applies to those who want the plan to go ahead. If the government and Airport Authority want a popular mandate, they need to redouble their efforts.

On Tuesday, Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung met the mainland's civil aviation chief in Beijing, during which the latter expressed support for the third runway. Cheung said the authorities in Macau, Hong Kong and the mainland would continue to work together to enact the airspace management agreement signed in 2007.

He did not furnish any details. He is effectively asking people to put blind faith in the authorities to come up with a consensus that will work for Hong Kong.

If the official parties were sincere about resolving the issue, they would have allowed Hong Kong greater access to the airspace in the Pearl River Delta, so we could handle more flights now. Presumably, the mainland authorities are procrastinating because they want to gain better leverage on our right to negotiate bilateral air services agreements, which is enshrined in the Basic Law.

Take Guangdong's Baiyun airport. It is equipped with three runways but, with only limited international flights, it has been eclipsed by Hong Kong's two-runway airport.

The SAR administration has a miserable track record in managing mass transit infrastructure projects. It is too much to ask for the people to put their faith in the government, the Airport Authority, the Civil Aviation Department and other bureaucracies.

I am not opposed to a third runway as a means to boost Hong Kong's status as an international aviation hub. What I do oppose is squandering public resources on a runway that might not be able to achieve its designed capacity.

Any argument for or against the third runway will be futile without addressing the core issue of bilateral aviation rights. Meanwhile, an independent monitoring authority must be set up to ensure every step in the runway debate is open and transparent.

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