This week, the Airport Authority released the master plan on Chek Lap Kok's development up to 2030 and launched a three-month public consultation on whether a third runway is needed.
The document outlines two development options - one for and one against the building of a third runway - and contains the pros and cons.
The discussion over Hong Kong's long-term aviation demand and runway has been going on for a long time with little input from the aviation authority. So the development plan and consultation document are critical to the future of our aviation industry. If we choose to build a third runway, the entire process requires a long lead time - at least 10 years. It involves not only the mere construction of the runway, but also many other significant and necessary steps such as public consultation, an environmental impact assessment and reclamation.
From an economic standpoint, I agree that we should go full steam ahead with a third runway. The existing airport facilities dictate the development capacity and future direction of our aviation industry, which is vital to our overall economic growth. As an international aviation hub, the city needs to keep expanding to meet traffic demand, and avoid a capacity crunch and the risk of being overtaken by neighbouring competitors. Failing to address capacity problems to meet future demand would affect the economy as well as other pillar industries such as tourism, logistics, finance and trade.
Despite my strong support for a new runway, I still insist that the lack of capacity is a long-term hardware issue; the most urgent short-term problem is the use of resources. We need to optimise our potential by maximising existing runway capacity.
Our dual-runway system handles 62 aircraft movements per hour and it is hoped to reach 68 per hour by 2015. At present, Beijing and Bangkok both register 68 landings and take-offs per hour, Singapore 66 and Guangzhou 60. We also compare badly with some airports that have two runways; Frankfurt operates 78 flights per hour, London's Heathrow, 85.
Our problem has little to do with infrastructural capacity; it has more to do with mismanagement and short-sightedness. Our aviation authority uses safety and insufficient manpower as excuses for not expanding runway capacity. The manpower issue can be easily resolved by recruiting air traffic controllers from overseas, while regional airspace congestion can be solved by rationalising airspace design and standardising air traffic control systems' protocol. According to government projections, once these hurdles are overcome, our capacity can reach 72 to 78 per hour straight away.
The building of a third runway and associated facilities requires the reclamation of some 650 hectares of land and the cost, factoring in inflation, is put at HK$136 billion. There are also complex issues to consider such as the possible impact on the marine environment, and the building and management of associated facilities, plus manpower concerns. As the Chinese saying goes, 'Far-off water does not put out nearby fire'; we first need to tackle the problem of manpower shortages. Otherwise, we risk turning the third runway into a white elephant.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org