Aviation officials say third runway only option to handle extra traffic
Civil Aviation Department makes case for expansion to handle expected increase in flights
A third runway at Hong Kong's airport is the only way to handle rising air traffic in the long term, aviation authorities said yesterday, as they sought to fend off criticism the existing runways are not fully utilised.
The Civil Aviation Department reiterated its defence of the long-running proposal in response to criticism in recent newspaper columns.
Backing the department's position are figures released by global data tracker FlightStats this week showing that only 54.6 per cent of flights left Chek Lap Kok airport on time last month, down from 63.7 per cent in June and 76.8 per cent in January.
The department said it had improved navigation systems and carried out other measures over the years to boost the capacity of the two runways. In 1999, Chek Lap Kok could handle 40 flights an hour. The capacity had risen to 50 in 2004, and to 64 now.
"At present, we are always having to handle 64 [movements per hour]," assistant director general of civil aviation Manuel Sum Siu-wah said, implying that the two runways had reached full utilisation.
The capacity is expected to rise to 68 flights per hour in 2015. Sum said the department could further improve its work to cope with more than 68 movements an hour - but only for several hours a day.
"We cannot operate like that in the long run," he said, stressing the need for a third runway.
The department also said it had been striving to improve air-traffic management in the Pearl River Delta by holding regular meetings with its mainland and Macau counterparts.
The idea of a third runway was first floated by the Airport Authority in 2006. The project, to cost about HK$130 billion, would boost flight handling capacity to 102 per hour, the authority said.
It is conducting an environmental assessment of the project.
Sum hit back yesterday at arguments in newspaper columns that London's Heathrow Airport also had two runways but could handle more than 80 movements in an hour.
The comparison was incorrect, he said, mainly because Chek Lap Kok was surrounded by high mountains, such as the 957-metre Tai Mo Shan, creating challenges for planes.
The critics also say planes flying from Hong Kong to the mainland must cruise at a minimum of 15,700 feet. It means they must ascend suddenly, possibly creating air traffic problems, they say.
Chief electronics engineer Richard Wu said this "wall in the sky" was not a problem because it was far away from the airport.
To let planes fly shorter routes, the department reached a deal with mainland authorities in 2005 to lower the limit to 12,800 feet between 11pm and 7am.
Wu said the department had been looking for ways to enhance air traffic management with its mainland counterparts.
For example, the department uses feet in navigation while its mainland counterparts use metres - so an air traffic controller spends time converting the height from metres into feet. Last year 1.45 per cent of flights were delayed due to this issue.