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Hong Kong authorities must reveal airspace plan before building third runway at airport

Albert Cheng says Hongkongers are right to demand some proof of a regional deal on air traffic management before a costly third runway is added to Chek Lap Kok

Officials are asking Hongkongers to take a blind leap in supporting the new runway at Chek Lap Kok. They say by the time the facility is operational in about a decade, Hong Kong will have adequate access to nearby airspace to make the HK$141.5 billion investment worthwhile.

The aviation authorities of Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China started discussing in 2004 how to maximise their respective airspace to cope with the rapid growth of commercial flights in the region. Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department joined with the Civil Aviation Administration of China and Civil Aviation Authority of Macau to form a working group to manage the regional air traffic, keeping in mind future expansion of the five airports in Shenzhen, Macau, Zhuhai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Their meetings from 2004 to 2007 culminated in a plan for the Pearl River Delta region.

The administration is, to put it mildly, ham-fisted in planning and overseeing large-scale engineering projects

Since then, the tripartite committee has been as transparent as a black hole. Legislators, industry experts and the news media have repeatedly asked the government to produce documents to assure the public the other two parties have indeed agreed to take concrete steps to help meet Hong Kong’s need for more airspace.

So far, officials can only regurgitate what they managed to get out of the working group eight years ago, with not a word about what the three sides have done or will do for Hong Kong’s third runway. The runway alone, without the reorganisation of the surrounding airspace, will not lead to any substantial increase in airport capacity. The plan is apparently little more than a statement of intent.

The last tripartite meeting was held in 2012. I dare say, to date, no substantive advancement has been made. The best that Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung and other officials can do is hide behind the so-called plan, the exact content of which has never been disclosed.

One can presume there is no agreement to reorganise Hong Kong’s surrounding airspace to accommodate additional flights arising from the third runway. Without this, the new facility is doomed to be a white elephant.

Among the experts who have already spoken against the scheme are two former directors of aviation, Peter Lok Kung-nam and Albert Lam Kwong-yu, and former director of the Hong Kong Observatory Lam Chiu-ying. They, too, have also demanded to see proof of any regional cooperation on airspace. One wonders how many bureaucrats will step forward once they are free to speak their minds.

Although the Executive Council has already rubber-stamped the project, public opposition has been snowballing. At least two judicial reviews have been filed to block the construction of the runway.

The administration is, to put it mildly, ham-fisted in planning and overseeing large-scale engineering projects. The track record of Cheung and his colleagues hardly inspires public confidence in the third runway proposition. The troublesome express rail link is also in his portfolio. The scheme has a budget overrun of over HK$20 billion, while its completion date has been repeatedly delayed.

Another major infrastructure project, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, is also in troubled waters . Various parts of the reclamation for the HK$7 billion artificial island that would house the immigration facilities have shifted “up to six or seven metres”, according to reports. The Highways Department admitted the works could not be completed as scheduled by the end of next year. It could not say how long the delay would be.

Given such bitter experiences, I would not be surprised to see the final bill for the third runway exceeding HK$200 billion. The Airport Authority is now promoting its plan to impose a levy on travellers to help fund the project. It has even worked out details on how to make business-class passengers pay more.

This is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. The new runway is heading for anything but a soft landing.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.

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