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Published on Friday, 15 Mar 2013
An artist’s impression of the expanded midfield freighter aprons, with the third runway and concourses in the upper left.
Photos: Airport Authority
An artist’s impression of the expanded midfield freighter aprons (pictured), with the third runway and concourses in the upper left.
Photos: Airport Authority
Kevin Poole
Photo: Laurence Leung

A third runway will dramatically boost airport business

From an economic perspective, preliminary forecasts relating to the proposed development of a third runway system at Chek Lap Kok certainly make impressive reading.

The numbers show, for instance, that annual passenger volume could increase from 54 million in 2011 to 97 million in 2030. Over the same period, yearly freight could more than double, from 3.9 million to 8.9 million tonnes. And according to base-case demand calculated by Iata Consulting, annual flight movements, including commercial, cargo and private jet traffic, could potentially rise from 334,000 to 602,000 by 2030.

Such growth, though, depends on sufficient capacity being available to handle every aspect of an expanded operation. With the latest projections also showing that, in its current form, Hong Kong International Airport will near saturation point between 2020 and 2022, the focus on the need for a third runway – and the benefits it should bring – is therefore intensifying.

Airlines, logistics companies, tourist chiefs, airport service providers and leading voices in the broader business community are lining up to support the idea. They are quick to highlight the expected pluses, among them Hong Kong’s position as a global aviation hub and the economic activity it generates. They point, in particular, to the positive impact of creating new jobs.

Already, airport operations directly employ more than 65,000 staff. When indirect and induced employment is also taken into account – which includes work in areas like construction, cleaning, food and retail goods, aircraft maintenance and local transport – the number almost triples. It also represents close to 5 per cent of Hong Kong’s workforce.

Forecasts suggest that successful expansion could see the number of direct employees reach 141,000 by 2030, with the indirect total up to 199,000. Various phases along the way, from land formation of 650 hectares to the northwest of the two present runways, to construction of a new apron, concourse, ground support facilities, terminal extension, baggage-handling systems and APM (automated people mover), would also create thousands of job opportunities.

Cathay Pacific Catering Services (CPCS) is one employer that foresees the need to considerably enlarge its workforce in the event of the third runway going ahead. “The third runway will bring considerably more business to Hong Kong, including to CPCS,” says Kuby Hong, the company’s personnel and training manager. “We would expect the demand for catering services to increase progressively and we have a comprehensive expansion plan at the ready to accommodate that growth. This will see us increase our production capacity from the current 80,000 meals we provide a day to 140,000.

“This increase in business volume will require additional manpower. Currently we have about 2,100 staff and this number is expected to approach 2,500 over the coming three to five years. Additional job roles will range from low-skilled labour to specialists, including, for example, chefs, drivers and logistics specialists.”

However, amid widespread initial enthusiasm for the proposed project, it is important to remember that nothing has yet been decided. The essential first stage is completion of an extremely detailed EIA (environmental impact assessment) followed by the Environmental Protection Department’s review of the submitted project profile.

The EIA process began last in August last year and will involve expert appraisal of everything from noise and air pollution to the impact on dolphin habitats. Expected to take two years, it would be followed by further discussion – and possible revision – of design details and funding options. With estimated total costs put at HK$136 billion, factoring in inflation, the debate about money – who pays and who doesn’t – seems sure to be lively and, quite possibly, fractious.

Assuming, though, that the required environmental permit, foreshore and seabed gazettal, and financial arrangements are agreed, work could then proceed.

“If all goes to plan, we would hope to start construction by mid-2016 and have the third runway system ready for operations in 2023,” says Kevin Poole, deputy director for projects with the Airport Authority Hong Kong (AA). “In many ways, the scale and facilities are very similar to what was built originally for the first phase of the airport, but one difference is that this time we would be reclaiming land on top of mud, without any dredging.”

Poole notes that, in 2011, the AA carried out a three-month consultation exercise to gauge public opinion on long-term development plans. The results showed 73 per cent of respondents supported the option for airport expansion with a third runway. But while such support obviously helps, what really counts now is being able to put a convincing case before the various EIA assessors, one that doesn’t rely on the perhaps wishful evidence of public polls or economists’ forecasts.

“We have looked at many options [for siting a third runway] and believe this is the best and most appropriate position,” Poole says. “Hong Kong is lucky in having only easterly or westerly winds and being able to operate from two directions. But it means you can only build a new runway parallel to the first two, and the distance from the first two is then governed by aeronautical conditions.”

A key part of the process is to address every point raised during the EIA and show what action can be taken to avoid, minimise, control or compensate for potential impact. It involves going well beyond standard requirements to looking at the cumulative effect of other projects like the new North Lantau border crossing facility for the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai, and the impact on road traffic, air quality, marine disruption and safety.

“The need for additional staff would come over the years,” Poole says. “It would be roughly the same mix as now of skilled professionals, as well as semi-skilled and unskilled workers. You need those different types of job to keep people in Hong Kong fully employed.”

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