Criticism of Hong Kong’s proposed third runway should be based on facts
Raymond Li says there are many mistaken ideas among the public about a three-runway system at the airport, and they need clarification
In February this year, the Town Planning Board completed its review of the draft outline zoning plan supporting a three-runway system at Hong Kong International Airport and agreed to submit it to the Chief Executive in Council for approval. This will pave the way for the implementation of the three-runway system which is essential to meet our long-term air traffic demand.
Many opinions were heard during the board review meetings, some of which were misconceptions that have unfortunately persisted despite attempts at clarification. The Civil Aviation Department would like to address some of these.
Fact 1: To meet safety requirements, the maximum capacity of Hong Kong’s existing two runways is 68 flight movements per hour.
Some commentators suggest that the maximum capacity could reach 86 movements per hour if airspace were better managed. This appears to be based on misinterpretation of the 1992 New Airport Master Plan.
The master plan presumed that if the two runways were able to support an “independent mixed mode” – that is, two runways were used for both take-offs and landings at the same time, as if they were two independent airports – the maximum capacity of the two runways could reach 86 movements per hour. Nonetheless, the same report clearly stated that, fettered by the surrounding terrain of Lantau Island, it is impractical for the two runways at the airport to adopt this mode of operation due to incompliance with the safety requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, particularly in relation to the safe distance to be maintained between aircraft during take-off and landing. In other words, the capacity of the existing two runways is constrained, and it is impossible for the two runways to reach 86 movements per hour. Subsequent international consultancy studies reaffirmed this.
Let me draw a comparison with a train station. If there are only two platforms at the station and the trains have to operate at a fixed time interval at each platform, the maximum number of trains that this station can operate is constrained. Without a new platform, the number of trains to be operated by this station will never go beyond the limit, even if more tracks are built to connect this station with other stations. The same applies to the two runways at the airport. Only by building an additional runway can we greatly enhance the number of aircraft movements.
Fact 2: Removing some hilltops on Lantau Island will not enhance runway capacity.
There were views that capacity of the runways could be boosted if the peaks of two small hills on Lantau could be removed. This misconception again probably stemmed from the 1992 master plan. While the report mentioned removing the peaks of two hills, which were 610 and 810 feet high, the suggestion was made in connection with possible options of lowering the climb-out gradients for departure aircraft in case of engine failure. This has nothing to do with runway capacity.
If we were to alter the surrounding terrain for the sake of increasing the capacity of the runways, most of the high peaks on Lantau Island would have to be levelled to satisfy the relevant safety requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organisation. This would mean forgoing the Ngong Ping cable car, Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery and a part of the Lantau country parks, which does not appear acceptable to the public.
Fact 3: Claims that flight tracks between Hong Kong and Shenzhen will be in conflict are unfounded.
As early as 2004, the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau set up a tripartite working group to formulate measures to rationalise airspace structure and air traffic management arrangements in the Pearl River Delta region to optimise the use of airspace and enhance safety.
The three sides jointly established a plan in 2007, which took into account the operational needs of a three-runway system in Hong Kong as well as the development needs of Shenzhen and other major airports in the region. Progressive implementation of the plan will not lead to any conflict between the flight tracks of the three-runway system and that of Shenzhen airport (or any other airports in the Pearl River Delta).
I have seen a graphic depicting the existing flight tracks of Shenzhen airport together with the flight tracks of the future three-runway system, suggesting that the flight tracks are overlapping and unsafe. We treat this kind of misleading accusation very seriously as there is absolutely no question of the government compromising aviation safety in any manner.
Fact 4: Shared use of airspace complies with the Basic Law.
Some people have alleged that the shared use of airspace between Hong Kong and Shenzhen may violate the Basic Law. This is absolutely groundless. As a matter of fact, the International Civil Aviation Organisation has been advocating that air route structure and air traffic management efficiency, instead of national boundaries, should be the prime considerations in planning airspace. Such airspace management is a common international practice, for instance between Singapore and Malaysia, and between Germany and Switzerland.
The High Court earlier rejected an application for a judicial review in relation to the three-runway system. The complaint that the implementation of shared use of airspace under the plan would breach the Basic Law was considered not reasonably arguable. The court also considered that even though the Civil Aviation Department would permit the mainland authority to utilise a small portion of Hong Kong airspace to facilitate air traffic control, and vice versa, the ownership of the concerned airspace would still belong to the original civil aviation authority.
Hong Kong, mainland China and Macau ‘remain committed’ to city’s third runway, says transport minister
The State Council issued a guideline on March 15 on promoting co-operation within the Pearl River Delta region which clearly stated that the central government supports the development of a third runway in at the Hong Kong airport, to reinforce the city’s position as an international aviation hub. I hope that this article can help dispel misconceptions.
Raymond Li is asistant director general of civil aviation (air traffic management)