Hong Kong considers third runway

By Annemarie Evans
BBC News, Hong Kong

image captionHong Kong International Airport overtook Memphis as the world's biggest air cargo hub in 2010

Passengers who flew into Hong Kong prior to July 1998 had one of the most dramatic entries into a city in the world.

The turn into Kai Tak airport was so tight that only specially-trained pilots were allowed to do it.

Passengers, meanwhile, had a view - it's not a myth - of the washing on bamboo poles outside people's high-rise flats as the aircraft came in low over the Kowloon peninsula.

Kai Tak's replacement was less romantic, but architect Norman Foster's grey and glass Hong Kong International Airport on the large outlying island of Lantau has seen the city's aviation industry rise far above predictions.

The pace of growth has been such that Hong Kong is now contemplating building a third runway, for which a public consultation period has just begun.

The Hong Kong government and Airport Authority are putting forward two options.

One is to maintain the two runways with a few extra add-ons, such as an expanded terminal area, but that is a plan that barely lasts nine years.

The much more expensive option is to build the extra runway, which airlines and the business community say is the only way to keep up with the phenomenal growth of both passenger load and cargo.

If it goes ahead, the third runway would cost 86bn Hong Kong dollars ($11bn; £6.75bn) to build.

But it would mean that Hong Kong International Airport could handle a maximum of 620,000 flights per year and meet forecast annual passenger throughput of 97 million and cargo of 8.9 million tonnes by 2030, says the government.

World's cargo hub

Cathay Pacific Airways chief executive John Slosar says Hong Kong has become a victim of its own success as the two runways are likely to be insufficient to meet demand by 2020, rather than 10 or 20 years after that, as previously thought.

"When the airport was built, their forecast was that the two runways and the terminals would probably last well beyond 2030, even up to 2040, and we've arrived at that destination 15 to 20 years early, and that's a sign of success," he says.

Already this year, on one day the airport had a record 1,003 flights, but it's not just the increased passengers that are putting the pressure on for a third runway.

Hong Kong is now the world's biggest hub for cargo, and the airlines say that in order to stay competitive the third runway must be built.

Both Singapore and Seoul have expansion plans, Mr Slosar told the BBC. In addition, Hong Kong's neighbours, such as Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta, are also adding runways.

image captionFlying into Hong Kong's old Kai Tak airport used to mean flying through high rises

If Hong Kong doesn't keep up, he says, it would be the city's Asian competitors who would be rubbing their hands. Cathay Pacific carried 26 million passengers last year.

According to Hong Kong's Airport Authority, in the first quarter of 2011 passenger traffic reached 12.5 million and cargo volume rose to 944,000 tonnes.

Flight movements jumped to 79,845, a 14% increase on the previous year.

Last year, Hong Kong International Airport overtook Memphis as the world's biggest air cargo hub, due to exports from southern China's Pearl River Delta.

Cathay Pacific also became the world's largest international air cargo carrier.

It may be argued that none of this could have been predicted in July 1998.

Environmental concerns

But to build a third runway would involve reclamation of 650 hectares (6.5 sq km).

That means the runway would be built on areas which are currently in the sea, which could have a negative impact on the white dolphin, according to environmental groups including the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The white dolphin is a protected species in Hong Kong.

Andy Cornish, director of conservation at WWF Hong Kong, said: "[The third runway] would take it much closer to the marine park that was specifically set up to protect the Chinese white dolphin.

"So in terms of impact, it's 650 hectares of sea which will be totally lost to the Chinese white dolphin. Also, when the reclamation is happening, there will be considerable disturbance - that is much greater than the footprint - from sediment and noise."

As well as natural habitats for wildlife, there are also concerns about more air pollution, which is already a huge problem for Hong Kong.

Albert Lai, the vice-chairman of a Hong Kong political party, the Civic Party, says he and his party are currently open-minded about the third runway, but the public needs to be presented with all the options.

The Hong Kong Airport Authority also has plans to increase the capacity of the current runways by building more terminals on the existing land.

It would also like to increase traffic flow.


Currently mainland China has very strict rules on the control of airspace between Hong Kong and the mainland and those restrictions have limited the number of flights to a certain extent.

"I think if the government wants to consult the public on the third runway then they need to table the full options," says Mr Lai.

"The runway is actually one of several related infrastructure projects. Another is the high-speed railway from this airport to Shenzhen airport," to share the flight load.

Public policy consultant David Dodwell says that no alternative would be as effective as having a third runway.

"Even if you increase the take-offs and landings and increase the size of the aircraft, or share with Macau and Shenzhen airports, none of the alternatives would keep up with the level of growth," says Dodwell.

"It's a no-brainer from a business competitiveness perspective, unless the public view is that we forego growth."

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