Cleared for Takeoff

I may as well come straight out and say it: there is a fair chance Hong Kong airport’s fourth runway will have to be in Shenzhen.

A seminar organized by the SCMP earlier this month discussed all aspects of our existing world class two-runway airport at Chek Lap Kok. Several important conclusions were identified. No international business centre worthy of the name can survive, let alone flourish, without a modern airport with extensive connectivity to the rest of the world. Such a facility is a significant employer in its own right, and is critical to development in the rest of the economy. There is a long lead time in planning and constructing new runways, let alone new airports. Hong Kong airport is essentially at full capacity and already slots are having to be rationed. The third runway is urgently needed and there is no time to be lost in its provision. Even with the third runway, the airport will be at full capacity soon after its scheduled opening in 2023 and a fourth runway will be needed by 2030.

But where will it be? This was the last question posed by a member of the audience at the seminar and it was not really answered other than by a desperate plea by our de facto home carrier that it be somewhere "in Hong Kong". In fairness to our government, the minister concerned Anthony Cheung has already recognized the issue and announced two years ago that the Airport Authority had commenced a study of the fourth runway.

Obviously the most desirable location would be alongside the new third runway, construction of which is due to start shortly. But there is not enough room there to accommodate one with sufficient separation to permit independent operation without straying into mainland waters and also causing unacceptable interference with major shipping channels. There may even be infringement of the proposed new dolphin sanctuary, which was itself a condition of environmental approval for the third runway. These obstacles taken together are enough to veto that choice. It would be impossible to justify the enormous expenditure required – likely to be considerably more than the cost of the third runway – for infrastructure which did not meet ICAO safety standards.

Given the way air services are authorized, via a complicated network of agreements with individual countries or authorities, the desire for any extra capacity to be under Hong Kong’s direct jurisdiction is understandable. Already there is some talk of a second airport – southern Lamma Island has been mentioned as one possible location – which would be linked to the present airport via a dedicated express rail link. The time needed to plan for such an option, and the cost involved, would be formidable. Is there another possibility?

As it happens, I was asked a few years ago by the CEO of a major international airline whether there were alternatives to a third runway at CLK. My reply was that in theory there might be if all the authorized international airports in the Pearl River Delta organized air services in a coordinated way: for example Hong Kong could focus on wide-body long haul international services, Shenzhen would cover mainland destinations with a mix of wide-body and single aisle aircraft, Guangzhou would focus on freight, Macao would handle the Low Cost Carriers. Of course everyone would have some services from the others’ priority areas. There would also have to be a network of excellent surface transport connections between all or some of the airports.

Asked if such a scenario was likely, I had to confess that it was improbable the cities would agree to cooperate in such a scheme voluntarily. It would require heavy pressure from the central government, and Beijing had more urgent things to do than expend time and energy to pressure several competing stroppy municipalities to work together. Hence there was a need for Hong Kong to proceed with the third runway.

But these calculations may change once we have had a detailed look at the costs and other implications of providing a fourth runway within Hong Kong’s limited land area. It may be time for a second look at a more limited version of the cooperation option.

And yes, before you ask, I did attend the seminar and it was me who raised the question. Part of the responsibility of columnists, after all, is to raise difficult questions and float unwelcome ideas for answering them.