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Making lots of noise about operation of Hong Kong’s airport


Jake Van Der Kamp

The Airport Authority may increase take-offs at night to tackle a looming capacity crunch at Chek Lap Kok before a third runway is built …

Do you remember being told just before our new airport opened that the harbour would be its new noise channel?

Here we thought that one big plus of having a new airport far off on the northern shore of Lantau Island was that we would no longer have to put up with the noise of aircraft taking off from the old Kai Tak airport right in the centre of the harbour area.

It was certainly so if you lived on that side of the harbour and could mark the passage of time every few minutes with the thought of “There goes another one”. If you lived further west along the harbour you hardly heard it.

And then along came the Airport Authority with a message that, with the sugar coating removed: “Guess what, now you’re going to hear it all the time, and louder too, and everywhere along the harbour. That’s the new approach and take-off path.”

Civic governments elsewhere move airports out of town to get away from the noise. We moved ours out of town to get right under the noise.

They could have told us when the airport was in the feasibility stage as they already knew then where that approach path would have to go. But they didn’t.

They waited until the very last minute and then just sort of leaked it out – “Oh sorry, forgot to tell you, can’t imagine why we didn’t tell you earlier.”

Well, I can imagine. It is because our airport authority has long sold itself out to that cabal of airlines, hotelkeepers and retail landlords that calls itself the tourism industry and feels it has the right to inflict any cost or inconvenience on us for the sake of a so-called pillar industry that brings the narrow cabal a great deal and the rest of us very little.

The Airport Authority does not really serve us. It serves the greater glory of the airport, that is when it is not making ritual obeisance to the tourism industry. We are the sacrifices of this cult.

The airport’s accounts show it. Fully 92 per cent of its pre-tax earnings last year came from retail leases and other terminal commercial operations plus airport investment ventures in mainland China. The airlines use the airport at cost, a nice gift from the Hong Kong taxpayers who paid for building the whole thing.

The Airport Authority has taken such good care of the airlines, in fact, that the landing and parking charges it levies on them are now 15 per cent lower, yes, lower, than they were in 1998 when the airport was opened.

This was done despite the fact that it had on hand an independent study by a reputable British air traffic consultant, Leigh Fisher, that our airport’s charges were far lower than worldwide counterparts, the 54th lowest of 55 international airports covered.

As an inadvertently leaked paper from the deputy projects director also showed three years ago, the new airport runs about 57 per cent more flights than the old airport at Kai Tak used to do for the same number of passengers.

Congestion made Kai Tak disciplined about serving secondary mainland cities with smaller aircraft. That discipline went by the board at the new airport. In fact, the Airport Authority pitched mainland cities for more small aircraft business.

And then they turned around and pitched us for what will probably be nearly HK$200 billion for a third runway to handle the increase in passenger and cargo traffic.

They tell us that it can be paid for internally through an extra levy on passengers and cargo. But in order to raise the project finance they will of course also need a government guarantee. The taxpayer goes on the hook again.

I shall be very surprised if the first economic downturn that comes round won’t have them coming back to say that a guarantee is not enough and taxpayer cash will also have to be added to the mix.

And now they tell us that they want to keep us awake at night because we have not approved the third runway idea quickly enough.

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