Hong Kong's third runway proposal

Airport bosses accused of manipulating flight figures to justify third runway

Groups fighting plans for third runway say bosses pushing up usage rates of existing two by letting 'half-empty planes' serve minor routes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 5:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 10:56am

Airport chiefs are ignoring inefficiencies in the use of its two runways as they seek to justify a third, concern groups say.

They questioned the need for the multibillion-dollar expansion of Chep Lap Kok after analysis of a million flights between 2010 and 2012 highlighted low operational efficiency of the existing runways.

They pointed to valuable landing and take-off slots being allocated to low-capacity, narrow-body aircraft, most destined for obscure third- and fourth-tier mainland cities.

Airport Development Concern Network spokesman Michael Mo questioned whether this was the most efficient use of the runways given that some small narrow-body jets were taking off only half full.

"There are currently no efficient monitoring mechanisms to ensure our runway landing slots are used efficiently," said Mo.

He said the Airport Authority was letting "empty flights" fly back and forth from the city so it could earn landing fees and push up the total number of flights.

According to the authority, adding another runway would boost the capacity of the airport by about 44 per cent by 2023.

It says the existing two runways are forecast to reach capacity as early as 2016.

But the group's analysis, based on Civil Aviation Department data, found the proportion of narrow-body aircraft rose from 37 per cent of total flights in 2010 to about 39 per cent in 2012, while wide-body aircraft flights fell from 63 per cent to 61 per cent.

Narrow-body aircraft flights accounted for 70 per cent of all flights to the mainland, with most headed for lower-tier cities.

A narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft carries 50 per cent fewer passengers than a wide-body, or dual-aisle, model.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, of the group Green Sense, which co-authored the report, said the airport was "at risk of becoming a small airport transit hub exclusively used by Chinese passengers".

He said: "The actual number of aircraft seats occupied is not high, but the authority gets to create an illusion that there are many flights moving in and out."

Albert Lai Kwong-tak, of the Professional Commons, said the airport could turn into a "low efficiency, low value and high cost" operation. "There is no reason for our international airport to compete, and at such high cost, with Shenzhen and Guangzhou for domestic flights to third- and fourth-tier cities," he said.

"The economic benefits of expanding routes to these cities are low and positioning our airport as a hub for these routes will only cause the city a loss." He said the airport did not have to increase the total of flights, but urged airlines to change aircraft types.

David Newbery, of the Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association, said switching to larger aircraft would not necessarily increased efficiency, as having to fly them half empty would be even worse financially and environmentally. He said most flights would have to be operating at 80 per cent capacity or risk running a loss, but many airlines kept unprofitable routes just to keep them open or because they were subsidised by governments.

Henry Chan, also of the pilots' association, said switching to larger aircraft also meant less frequency and less destination choice for passengers.

The fate of the third runway hinges on how the public takes the results of an environmental impact assessment. The public has until Saturday to inspect it.

In a statement, the authority said the only way to solve the capacity bottleneck was to expand the airport into a three-runway system to increase daily flight movements to meet air traffic demand.

The Civil Aviation Department said that its views were in line with that of the authority.

Both pointed out that the airport was the most efficient in the world, with 267 workload units per flight movement. One workload unit is equal to one passenger, or 100kg of cargo.