Albert Cheng says recruiting air traffic controllers from overseas, to boost the capacity of the two existing runways, would be far cheaper
Airport Authority chiefs have been racking their brains on how to bypass the legislature to fund the proposed third runway, ever since the environmental impact assessment for the project was approved last year.
Last month, the authority submitted a proposal to the Executive Council on how to finance the massive infrastructure project. It has estimated the cost at HK$136 billion, a far lower figure than earlier market predictions of around HK$200 billion.
Even at this price, the odds of a smooth sailing through the Legislative Council remain slim. Public objections to the plan are mounting, with some people painting it as a white elephant, while green activists are seeking a judicial review to nullify the environmental permit already issued.
The authority has reportedly come up with a three-pronged approach to get round public opinion. It wants to waive dividend payment to the government for eight years, so that a special HK$40 billion fund could be set aside for the purpose. It paid a record HK$5.3 billion dividend to the government, which is its sole shareholder, in the last financial year.
It is also poised to impose a “runway construction surcharge” of between HK$150 and HK$200 on each passenger, generating another HK$3 billion a year for the next 10 years. This would be on top of the HK$120 departure tax now levied on passengers aged 12 or above who leave Hong Kong by air.
The remaining amount could be met by issuing bonds.
The authority’s plans are designed to deprive legislators of the proper channels to scrutinise the project.
I have made my position clear; I am unconvinced there is a need for an additional runway. Officials, for example, have yet to explain how we could better use the airspace immediately north of Hong Kong under mainland control.
As Beijing continues to erode Hong Kong’s role in the “one country, two systems” arrangement, our so-called special administrative region will increasingly become not so special – and be just another Chinese city. In this scenario, the premise for a drastic increase in air capacity for Hong Kong is questionable.
Meanwhile, the director general of civil aviation, Norman Lo Shung-man, has made a bad pitch even less appealing. He was condemned by legislators for squandering taxpayers’ money by turning his new office building into a luxurious amenity. The Civil Aviation Department also spent public money on security and electronic systems without government approval. It would be a stretch to ask the public to place their confidence in him to oversee the most expensive infrastructure project in the history of Hong Kong.
Economic, environmental and technical uncertainties aside, the project is also doomed by an acute labour shortage. There is now a shortfall of about 15 air traffic control and aeronautical communications personnel. The Civil Aviation Department has recruited 60-odd student officers over the past few years. That means only about 20 officers at the junior level each year.
It takes five years to train a student air traffic control officer. At least a decade is needed before they are ready to be promoted to a supervisory role. Even if we eventually get the hardware built in a decade or so, we would not have enough air traffic controllers to ensure safety and efficiency.
Our existing air traffic controllers are close to burn-out. They are often required to work overtime and are unable to take all their holidays. It is difficult for them to keep up their professional standards under such stress, even before any additional workload arising from a third runway. Our airport’s capacity is severely handicapped at night because there are not enough controllers to direct the planes. Carriers, such as Cathay Pacific, are not able to fully utilise their broad-bodied aircraft for the same reason.
I wouldn’t mind putting a new runway on our collective wish list. But it is hardly a matter of urgency.
If we fail to act now to improve the working conditions at the control tower, the two existing runways may become underused, rather than saturated as the authority has predicted.
There is a compelling case for recruiting more experienced air traffic control officers from overseas.
These people could help to significantly boost the number of landings and take-offs for the two serving runways from 62 flights per hour to 68 flights per hour, or more.
Even if we were to reward, say, 30 expatriates with salaries of more than HK$1 million a year, that amount would be peanuts compared with the price of the third runway and would be money well spent.
This alternative prescription is simple: reform the Civil Aviation Department and liberalise its recruitment policy for air traffic controllers.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. firstname.lastname@example.org
Source URL (modified on Feb 26th 2015, 12:43pm): http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1723763/financing-issues-manpower-shortages-hong-kongs-third-runway