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April 7th, 2015:

Why not a second airport for Hong Kong?

Francis Cheung says if the government cannot justify its questionable third runway plans for Chek Lap Kok, it must change and consider building a second, properly expandable airport

Public concern over the government’s push for the third runway at Chek Lap Kok has recently extended from its impact on natural habitats to the projected capacity of the expanded airport, highlighted by the issue of limited airspace that would need to be shared with nearby airports across the boundary.

This latest controversy not only focuses attention on the government’s entrenched lack of transparency – when it refuses to disclose details of the alleged understanding reached with authorities to the north on airspace management, it also adds fuel to the fear that the third runway project will ultimately become a giant white elephant that cannot deliver on its promised boost in capacity. After all, if not enough planes can get into and out of the skies, added runway space on the ground is just a waste of concrete.

The government has left itself open to mistrust by claiming that Hong Kong needs a third runway to compete against airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen over the long term while suggesting that airspace could be amicably shared. We can be sure that any goodwill behind agreements on sharing made now will vanish into thin air when real dollars and cents are at stake. Just look at how difficult it has been to win support from Shenzhen on the recent issue of limiting multiple-entry visas.

Even if we set aside the airspace issue, the Airport Authority’s handling capacity projections are highly questionable due to the low efficiency of three-runway systems, which are not in common use internationally. Airports work best when pairs of runways operate in tandem, so a four- or six-runway system functions as two or three airports working side by side.

Three-runway systems will always be hampered by the unavoidable need for some planes to taxi across runways, thereby slowing down the clockwork rhythm of landings and take-offs. The design proposed for Hong Kong will be further suppressed as the third runway would only be used for landings – thanks once again to airspace limitations. This is why some are seriously questioning the Airport Authority’s projected capacity figures.

Fears of white elephants aside, the public needs to focus its attention on the elephant already in the room, namely the lack of time. According to the current project timeline, the third runway should be completed by 2023, leaving us only seven years until the year 2030 – when traffic volume will supposedly reach capacity again.

Given the severe limitations of the third runway project, the government must explain why it has not considered building a new and properly expandable airport. If there is real substance behind the projected growth in air traffic in the coming decades, investing more in a project that could genuinely deliver on its promised economic benefits over a longer term could be justified.

One location that deserves serious consideration as the potential site of a new airport is the southern end of Lamma Island. To begin with, the need to share airspace with neighbouring airports to the north would be greatly minimised. Planes could approach and leave Hong Kong through the open South China Sea without unnecessarily impinging on airspace across the boundary. Secondly, the conservation value of that part of Hong Kong is much less significant than northern Lantau. At the very least, the Chinese white dolphins are not known to live there.

One advantage of building a new airport on Lamma is that it could proceed in stages, first with two runways and then expand to four or even six as needed. It could operate in tandem with the Lantau airport, splitting routes between them to maximise efficiency. This would enable Hong Kong to maintain its status as a regional aviation hub by keeping up with cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, which have plans for more runways.

Obviously, building a new airport would involve a more substantial investment than adding a third runway. For one, infrastructure would have to be built to connect Lamma to the rest of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the government has a duty to study the idea of a new airport and justify to the public that the third runway project remains the best option for Hong Kong. After all, no one wants to see the government with hat in hand soon after the third runway becomes operational because “handling capacity will be running out in a few years” again.

The handling of the third runway project is sadly reminiscent of the way the former colonial government rushed the decision in the early 1990s to build the current airport without properly studying other sites. To our collective chagrin, the Chek Lap Kok site has turned out to offer extremely limited expandability. Moreover, mud pits created during the construction of the airport would need to be covered up at a cost of HK$22 billion before the third runway can be built.

Even when the Airport Authority first started studying the need to increase capacity seven years ago, it should not have restricted the choice to either enhancing the current two-runway system or adding a third runway.

Bureaucratic inertia inevitably builds up as an increasing amount of time and resources become vested in the third-runway approach, even when evidence of shortcomings continues to mount. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong public deserves a government that has the courage to change tack when a better solution appears on the horizon. History does not have to repeat itself.

Francis Neoton Cheung is the convenor of Doctoral Exchange, a public policy research collective ( [1]), and a former member of the Hong Kong airport consultative committee

Source URL (modified on Apr 7th 2015, 5:07pm):