A map showing the proposed third runway. Photo: AFP
Albert Cheng
Albert Cheng

Hong Kong must exhaust all other options before building third runway

Albert Cheng suggests ways the Airport Authority could raise its handling capacity, not least by better co-ordinating its airspace traffic

The Airport Authority recently ran newspaper advertisements to pave the way for its plan to build a third runway and engage the public over the ongoing environmental impact assessment of the project.

I have always objected to a third runway, mainly because the airport still has not fully utilised the capacity of the existing two runways. Building a third runway is not only a waste of resources; it will also seriously affect the nearby natural environment.

The problem stems from the fact that the director general of civil aviation is trying to play safe and has thus limited aircraft movements to 64 flights per hour for the two-runway system. By 2015, aircraft movements are expected to reach 68 per hour.

This is way below international standards. Take Heathrow for example. Its two runways handle up to 80 aircraft movements per hour.

If only Hong Kong could shake off its conservative management mindset, the airport could almost certainly immediately increase its runway capacity to reach international standards. That way, we could save resources and wouldn't need a third runway.

In fact, when the airport was still under construction, a British aviation consultant set the hourly aircraft movements at 75. But civil aviation chief Norman Lo Shung-man said aircraft movements could only reach 68 by 2015, rejecting what the consultant had said.

What could be the reasons for these restrictions? One is that our airport cannot increase the hourly aircraft movements due to our restricted airspace. In other words, the airspace congestion problem is not caused by a traffic bottleneck on the runways, but by the limited airspace.

Former civil aviation chief Albert Lam Kwong-yu said previously that the Hong Kong and national aviation authorities had already reached a consensus on how to manage the airspace to the north of the airport. But the current chief appears to have rejected this consensus and chosen a regressive path instead.

That's why we should look again at the option of expanding air space in the north.

I also wonder about the Airport Authority's motives for building a third runway. It seems motivated by a sense of grandeur, rather than practicality, and is looking to expand to secure its existence.

A third runway won't really resolve the problem; even this new runway would not be fully utilised.

Another reason why the runways are underutilised is the lack of professional talent. The civil aviation department blames a lack of locally trained air traffic controllers for not being able to raise the number of aircraft movements.

This is a rather backward-looking attitude. If we have a shortage of controllers, why not recruit overseas professionals? With more air traffic controllers, we can boost runway capacity and the airport would be able to handle more aircraft movements.

Lo and his department just seem full of excuses and are resistant to change.

Another point worth focusing on is synchronising our computer communication system with that of the mainland aviation authority. Hong Kong uses the American Raytheon system at the air traffic control centre, while the mainland uses the French Thales system.

If we can synchronise our computer systems, no doubt we would be able to further enhance communication and help boost traffic capacity.

I am not blindly objecting to airport expansion, but cost effectiveness is important.

At present, our airport is rather busy and congested mainly because of a lack of areas to park aircraft. To resolve this, we don't need a third runway, but rather a third terminal to increase parking spaces.

With the mainland's rapid economic development, the role of Hong Kong's airport as an international aviation hub will gradually diminish, as it is replaced by the airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen as economic expansion focuses on the Pearl River Delta.

Even if our airport is not replaced completely, the shift of focus will lessen our role and competitive edge. That's why building a third runway would be ineffective and would only create a white elephant.

Hong Kong needs development, but not ineffective development that ultimately turns into wasteful white elephants and stirs public opposition and discontent.

We should focus our resources and strengths to further enhance our development advantages. We need to always be one step ahead in our mindset to remain in a leading position. To increase our competitiveness and advantages doesn't mean expansion.

A sensible approach is to increase our airport's hourly aircraft movements to 75 and build a third passenger terminal as soon as possible. Big is not always effective - substance is far more important.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hong Kong must exhaust all other options before building third runway