April 2015 Editorial: Third Runway’s The Charm

On March 17, Hong Kong’s Executive Council gave the long-awaited green light to third runway for the city’s brimming airport. However, to the chagrin of the airline, logistics and tourism industries, the project is estimated to be completed in a decade. To them, and to others, the airport’s newest addition can’t come soon enough.

Hong Kong International Airport has long been a crown jewel in the city’s lauded transportation infrastructure. Last year, it came in first place for international air freight coming through the airport, and saw the third highest number globally of international passengers, up 6.2 percent from the previous year. But in order to maintain that competitiveness, the airport needs to continue to expand in size and accommodate the increasing number of flight movements, because if this trend of growth continues, it will reach its limit within the coming two years.

While Hong Kong still maintains its status as a hub for the region, neighboring cities in the Pearl Rival Delta are ramping up their efforts to become major destinations. Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, for example, is the main hub of China Southern Airlines, and is also a main focal point for Shenzhen and Hainan Airlines. All of these airlines have been aggressively buying aircraft from the US, with the latter recently making headlines because of an announcement planning to purchase whopping 30 Boeing Dreamliner airplanes, for future international flights.

Other international airports in the region are also expanding rapidly, with Shanghai, Seoul and Singapore’s traffic increasingly busy. Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport was a new entrant to the world’s top 30 busiest airports last year, having jumped 9.4 percent from its prior numbers. That number only stands to grow.

Multiple American carriers have launched new international routes from Hong Kong to the US in the past year alone, including American Airlines’ flight to Dallas / Fort Worth and Delta Airlines to Seattle. These airlines also simultaneously launched routes from Shanghai. Next month, Cathay Pacific will launch its own direct flight from Hong Kong to Boston.

In July 2012, AmCham published a cover story detailing the saga of the third runway. The three runway system would take place on a land formation of nearly 650 hectares of land to the north of the existing airport island, on which a third runway, related taxiways, airfield facilities and navigational aids would need to be constructed.

According to Kevin Poole, the deputy director for projects with the Hong Kong Airport Authority, emphasized to biz.hk just how seriously the Airport Authority was making efforts to make the building “from the outset an environmentally responsible building. The building is truly as green as we can make it.” The goal then was to gain a platinum certification from the BEAM Society Limited using its green buildings assessment tool.

There are numerous critics of the third runway, including environmental groups, who argue that increased noise pollution would adversely affect the neighboring communities. As of now, Hong Kong is in negotiations with Shenzhen officials as to whether there is airspace which can be ceded to the north, which would allow planes to avoid flying over Ma Wan. This is a major point of contention, as critics contend that to begin the project without first securing this promise is tantamount to allowing Chinese officials to demand civil aviation rights away from Hong Kong.

As presented by the Airport Authority, the estimated HK$142 billion for the project will come from raising market borrowings, charging airlines, as well as departing travelers with an airport construction fee, excluding transit passengers. Now, with the feedback given by the government, it will have to go back and review, ensuring the feasibility of its proposals and implementing cost controls.

The now proposed plan will, by 2030 enable the airport to transport 100 million passengers as well as 9 million tons of cargo In order to move forward, there must be clarity offered on both the financial viability of supporting what will be the largest undertaking in Hong Kong’s infrastructure history, as well as in regards to the discussions with Mainland Chinese officials about airspace.

With Hong Kong’s competitiveness being challenged on multiple fronts, the airport’s fight to preserve its status as a global hub is of the utmost consequence. There is truly no alternative.

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