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Risks carefully weighed in airport expansion plan that’s vital for Hong Kong

Anthony Cheung outlines the detailed consideration of the financial, environmental and logistical aspects behind the Airport Authority’s plan for a third runway, which is essential for Hong Kong’s competitiveness

Over the past decade, passenger numbers and cargo tonnage at Hong Kong International Airport have risen by 8 per cent and 5 per cent respectively on average per year. The number of flight movements has gone up 65 per cent, to 391,000 last year.

Each day, about 1,100 planes fly to and from some 180 destinations worldwide, including mainland cities, making Hong Kong a global aviation hub and contributing immensely to our trade, logistics and tourism industries.

However, the current two-runway system can only allow for a practical maximum capacity of 68 flights per hour. If the present air traffic growth trend continues, the airport will reach saturation in the coming two years.

If it is not to give up its hard-earned hub status, amid fierce competition from other international airports in the region, notably Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai, as well as Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta area, which are all expanding, there is no alternative but to build a third runway without delay.

The question is therefore not “whether” or “when”, but “how” to take the project forward.

Under the Airport Authority’s plan, a three-runway system can handle around 100 million passengers and cargo throughput of some 9 million tonnes by 2030.

The authority has already completed a rigorous statutory environmental impact assessment covering 12 aspects, including aircraft noise, air quality, marine ecology and impact on human health. A total of 250 mitigation and enhancement measures, including setting up the city’s largest-ever, 2,400-hectare marine park, were committed in the report to address public opinion and the views of the Advisory Council on the Environment.

The director of environmental protection granted the environmental permit for the project last November, with conditions. The Airport Authority has taken these conditions fully on board and aims to achieve “development alongside environmental conservation” under its vision to be one of the world’s greenest airports.

The authority has put up a self-financing plan based on the “joint contribution” principle for this mega infrastructure, estimated to cost HK$141.5 billion in money-of-the-day prices. It comprises raising market borrowings, given the authority’s triple-A credit rating; restoring present airport charges for airlines to pre-2000 levels, with subsequent adjustments in line with inflation; and introducing an airport construction fee per departing passenger, excepting those in transit. The authority also plans to retain all profits earned without dividend payment for 10 years.

The government supports this joint-contribution approach. Through borrowings, the market will exercise financial prudence in scrutinising the business viability of the project. Charging an airport construction fee to help finance expansion is not uncommon overseas.

However, the government is of the view that the Airport Authority should maximise borrowings and lower the construction fee so as to reduce the burden on passengers. It should also design airline charges so as to facilitate and encourage the most efficient use of the airport, and encourage the use of more wide-body planes.

Airspace and its management naturally determine how much air traffic an airport can accommodate within international safety limits. The airspace over Hong Kong and the surrounding delta area has seen tremendous growth since the 2000s.

In 2004, recognising the need to optimise the use and management of delta airspace, a tripartite working group was formed among the Civil Aviation Administration of China, Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department and the Civil Aviation Authority of Macau to enhance cooperation, coordination and standardisation of procedures and measurements.

The result was the delta airspace management plan in 2007 aimed at implementing various improvement measures in phases before 2020. The airport authority’s target runway capacity of 102 flights per hour (or 620,000 flights per year) under the three-runway system was premised on such a plan, which also envisaged five runways for Guangzhou and three for Shenzhen.

The Civil Aviation Department has been engaging mainland authorities to take forward the 2007 plan, and some measures have been rolled out in recent years.

The central authorities, including the Civil Aviation Administration, are supportive of the three-runway system so as to maintain Hong Kong’s global aviation hub position. We will continue to work closely with the administration on technical solutions to optimise the use of delta airspace and meet the operational needs of all sides.

The Airport Authority will take into consideration the government’s feedback and review its proposals, making adjustments to ensure the financing arrangements are fair and reasonable, and that the capital investment is well justified. It will also develop appropriate planning contingencies and cost-control measures.

Some critics of the third runway have suggested that the airport could expand the existing 68 flights per hour limit to 86 flights even with two runways, citing a 1992 report prepared for the then Provisional Airport Authority. Such a suggestion is based on a wrong understanding.

That report actually pointed to a maximum capacity of between 52 and 86 flights per hour for dual runways, depending on various conditions and constraints. Due to the surrounding terrain, notably Lantau’s high mountains, it would be impractical and unsafe under international standards to achieve the higher targets.

The Civil Aviation Department’s commissioned consultancy in 1994 confirmed a two-runway maximum capacity of 63 movements per hour. Subsequently, the UK-based NATS reviewed this capacity in 2008 and concluded that, using the latest air traffic control technology, it could be raised to 68 flights per hour, subject to various enhancement measures.

We know for sure that maintaining the status quo would mean no growth for Hong Kong aviation, losing our business and hub advantage to neighbouring international airports, and reducing our economic competitiveness. Just enhancing terminal and cargo facilities with only two runways will not remove the ultimate runway capacity bottleneck.

Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is secretary for transport and housing
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