Millions of Hong Kong fliers delayed by mainland military restrictions

About 100,000 flights using Chek Lap Kok each year have up to 20 minutes added to flight time thanks to height restrictions, analysis shows

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 11:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 August, 2014, 4:40pm

About 100,000 flights carrying almost 15 million passengers to and from Hong Kong airport each year are affected by military airspace restrictions, analysis of official civil aviation data shows.

Environmental group Green Sense and the Airport Development Concern Network revealed their analysis yesterday, pointing out that a so-called "sky wall" imposed by the PLA was extending flight times by between 10 and 20 minutes.

"We found that, between 2010 and 2012, about 30 per cent of planes needed to fly through this 'sky wall'. It is not the 23 per cent the Airport Authority has claimed," network spokesman Michael Mo said.

Green Sense president Roy Tam Hoi-pong said that the military required planes leaving the city to enter mainland airspace at a minimum altitude of some 4,800 metres.

The city's proximity to mainland airspace meant the flights leaving Chek Lap Kok had to fly in circles to reach that height, Tam said.

He said that meant each flight wasted 10 to 20 minutes flying in circles to reach an altitude of 4,785 metres. The reverse applied for flights arriving in Hong Kong.

The analysis found that, in 2012, 103,959 flights needed to fly through the "sky wall", representing 29.23 per cent of all flights to and from the Chek Lap Kok.

About 14.97 million passengers were affected. In 2011, 115,315 flights, or 34.33 per cent of flights to and from the airport carrying 14.88 million passengers were affected. In 2010, 95,834 flights, or 31.04 per cent of all flights, with about 13.88 million passengers, were affected.

Mo said that if the "sky wall" was lifted, the airport's two runways could handle 82 to 86 flight movements an hour instead of the current capacity of about 60, according to a government study in 1992 when the "sky wall" did not exist.

Tam said the Hong Kong government should talk to the mainland authorities about lifting the "sky wall". If the "sky wall" was lifted , there was no need to build the proposed third runway, he said.

The groups admitted limitations to their analysis. The data they obtained included airlines' flight frequency, aircraft models, destinations and point of departure - but not the flight path. However, they tried to match the flight path of each airline's flights with flight trackers FlightAware and Flightradar24.

Kenny Cheung, from the Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, and the BA Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Association estimated that 10 per cent of Cathay flights, 70 per cent of Dragonair flights, and 40 per cent of British Airways flights were affected by the "sky wall".

The Airport Authority said the mainland's air traffic controls had "no direct relation" to the runways' capacity.

"To ensure that different planes can operate effectively in different airspaces, planes need to reach a certain height before one air traffic management unit passes them to another unit. That's the usual practice in busy airspaces in different countries," he said.

The Civil Aviation Department said it had set up a working group with its mainland and Macau counterparts in 2004 on how to optimise the airspace.

Meanwhile, Ministry of National Defence spokesman Geng Yansheng said the ministry had tried to minimise the impact of military exercises on commercial flights by working with civil aviation authorities and airlines.

On Tuesday, the first day of PLA exercises in the East China Sea, authorities issued a red alert - the highest level - for flight delays in eastern provinces.

Eight airports did not allow landings in the afternoon, and Shanghai's two airports saw their capacity cut by 75 per cent.

Additional reporting by Adrian Wan in Beijing