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South China Morning Post

Proceeding with the third runway is pointless if nothing is done to increase local airspace capacity

Albert Cheng
Updated on Jul 16, 2011
What lies at the heart of the debate of whether Hong Kong International Airport should build a third runway to keep the city’s position as an international aviation hub is not hardware capacity or airspace boundary; but the airport’s ability to increase aircraft movements.

First and foremost, we must boost our capacity to handle more landings and take-offs to cope with increasing air traffic. Failing to do so would mean falling behind our neighbouring rivals.

In theory, having an extra runway should put the city ahead of other airports and enhance its competitive edge. The runway’s current estimated price tag of HK$136.2 billion, while high, is certainly within Hong Kong’s means. But we should not go ahead with the project unless we are absolutely sure that it is worthwhile.

We are racing against time to meet rapidly rising air traffic demand. Even if we could get the green light to start building the new runway tomorrow, the project would take between eight and 10 years to complete. By then we could be confronted with a new set of problems.

Our priority is airspace capacity. With the nearby Shenzhen airport expanding so rapidly, it is very likely that our airspace capacity will be pushed to the limit in the near future. So, if we do not resolve this issue quickly, we risk being marginalised. In short, having all the additional hardware in place 10 years from now will be pointless if we no longer have the airspace available to match the expansion.

Rapid development in the Pearl River Delta over the past decade has seen growth in its gross domestic product exceed or approach 10 per cent every year, according to mainland statistics.

The International Air Transport Association has found a correlation between GDP growth and an increase in air traffic. With GDP forecast to continue growing in the coming years, passenger traffic is also likely to rise. This means there will be tough competition for airspace in the region.

Hence, it is critically important that our airport takes action to boost its capacity to handle more aircraft movements. On average, Shenzhen airport’s single runway, one of the world’s busiest, handles more than 500 flights per day while Hong Kong’s average is more than 800.

However, we have to bear in mind that a substantial portion of our air traffic goes through the mainland, which means we don’t really have the upper hand when it comes to competing for the allocation of more airspace.

In other words, if we want to get more airspace, we must first make sure we have the additional capacity to fill up the extra quota.

First, we need to maximise our dual-runway system. Instead of permitting one runway for landings and one for departures, we should lift the restriction to optimise usage. Had we applied a bit of flexibility, we could have easily raised aircraft movements to 1,200 per day.

Our capacity crisis is a man-made one more than anything else. A third runway will not solve the problem in the long run if we fail to effectively manage and maximise our resources.

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