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Hong Kong's third runway project: We explore the controversy surrounding the $145.5 billion plan

Written by
Anna Cummins

The funding plan for a $145.5 billion ‘third runway project’ was confirmed last month. But this expensive piece of infrastructure is worrying environmental activists as well as city planners. Is growing a good idea? 

More than 60 million people travelled through it last year. It’s the world’s busiest cargo gateway and the 10th busiest passenger airport on the planet. And the government reckons that, by 2030, demand at Hong Kong International Airport will reach a staggering 102.3 million passengers each year. For years there has been intense debate over how the airport should handle our city’s status as a growing global business and travel hub. To expand or not to expand?

Just last month the government announced a funding plan for the controversial three-runway system (‘3RS’, if that’s too much of a mouthful), which will be built by 2023. This huge project involves around 650 hectares of reclamation and is set to cost $145.5 billion. The new concourse, parking bays and the runway itself mean HKIA will be able to handle 30 million extra passengers per year, bringing capacity much closer to the expected demand.

Of course, the process so far has been far from ‘plane’ sailing. The strength of feeling on the matter is high, particularly as almost every Hongkonger can expect to experience some of the runway’s wide spectrum of ramifications – from environmental to economic, with some commentators voicing fears that the bulk of new passengers would simply be transferring at the airport, rather than spending their dollars in our city.

When it transpired that the funding plan for the huge project had been pushed straight past LegCo and had instead been handled by Exco – the small board of advisors who work directly for the Chief Executive – many were worried that it was a sneaky move. It’s been speculated that this was a direct response to the widespread protests that erupted during the 2009/10 debates over the high speed rail link to Guangzhou. During the debates there were violent clashes with police at protests outside the LegCo building. Legislators in the pro-democracy camp also filibustered that proposal – thereby delaying its onset by several weeks. 

The upshot of all this is that the funding plan will not be scrutinised by LegCo. This is technically allowed to happen because the plan is not to tax HK citizens. Instead, the Airport Authority is to ‘self-fund’ the project, by charging airlines more to use the airport, as well as taxing all departing passengers $180 each. There will also be some funding from the authority’s savings and new loans will be taken out. However, as part of the plan, the Airport Authority will no longer need to pay its annual dividends to the government, which is the authority’s only shareholder. The public purse is therefore ultimately losing out on around $50 billion in the next decade. So, is this funding plan a wise move? “Well, it’s is better than asking the taxpayers. At least now it means that the users pay,” concedes Paul Zimmerman, CEO of non-profit organisation Designing Hong Kong.

HK Express airlines, which operates out of the airport, is (naturally) not so keen on the plan. “HK Express has reservations on the imposition of the additional charges,” its spokesman tells us – pointing out that the low-cost airline is concerned it will have to raise its fees. “We work really, really hard to lower the cost of travel, but when airport fees and charges increase, this simply pushes up the final price,” adds Andrew Cowen, the company’s deputy CEO. “Depending on how you look at it, our guests already pay about $220 in departure tax, other airport charges, and prorated landing fees. If there are additional charges on top of the existing fees, more of our guests will end up paying more to use the airport than they do to actually fly with us. This doesn’t sound quite right.”

Since the funding plan was approved in March, talk of finance has overshadowed what was previously the largest bone of contention for many – the environment. The new runway could see the number of hourly flights increase from the current 68 per hour up to 102 per hour – naturally offloading huge amounts of carbon into our atmosphere in the process. The swathes of reclamation will also jut directly into the habitat of the endangered Chinese white dolphin.

Dr Samuel Hung is the chairman of the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. “In its Environmental Impact Assessment,” he says, “the Airport Authority estimated some of the impacts [of the project]. They are not even addressing the 650 hectares of habitat loss for the dolphins, which is important for them. It’s a travelling area – it would severely limit their range of movement. The plan is to establish a marine park in an area the dolphins don’t utilise that much. It’s all wrong! Even more ridiculous – they will only make this provision after the construction is over. During the seven years of construction the damage is already done!”

We put this to the Airport Authority. A spokesman tells us that ‘there are more than 250 measures to avoid, minimise, mitigate and compensate for potential environmental impacts... in the EIA report’, pointing out that a marine park will be constructed for the dolphins after the runway is built.

Nora Yong is the chairperson of the Communications Taskforce at the Lantau Development Alliance. We ask her if it’s important to maintain Lantau as a ‘green lung’. “Lantau is a very big island,” she says. “We understand now that in the latest planning directives, the predominant part of Lantau, which includes big expanses of land, has been set aside and marked for conservation and ecotourism. We believe that development and conservation are not necessarily mutually exclusive and would encourage that the parties concerned work together in resolving differences for the betterment of Hong Kong.”

The popularity of the 3RS among the public appears to have dropped dramatically since its conception. In 2011, a government study found that nearly three in four Hongkongers supported the project. A survey carried out last month by Baptist University, however, found that 68 percent of people agreed or strongly agreed that the airport should work out how best to maximise its current two runways before thinking about building a new one. There have also been concerns raised over the fact that a tripartite deal, confirming that China and Macau will let Hong Kong use their airspace for the clearance of planes from the new runway, is being kept under wraps from the public – with Transport Secretary Anthony Cheung telling media that it’s a matter of ‘national security’.

We ask the Airport Authority to explain why it couldn’t use its two existing runways for larger planes, reducing the number of short-haul ‘commuter’ jets heading into China.

“For using the wide-bodied or narrow-bodied aircraft, airlines may deploy whichever aircraft they deem appropriate, based on the market situation, and airport operators have no right to try to influence this,” the spokesman tells us. “Any unnecessary interference by the operators would reduce the operational efficiencies of both the airport and its airlines, which would eventually undermine the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a tourism hub and business centre. Therefore, airport operators cannot – and should not – try to regulate airlines’ operational decisions.” The spokesman points out that HKIA has the ‘second-highest proportion of wide-bodied aircraft’ in the world, at over 63 percent.

Despite the controversies, the project is likely to roll ahead from here. But that doesn’t mean there’ll be no opposition. Back in February, two Hongkongers launched a judicial review in the High Court against 3RS, claiming that the environmental impact assessment carried out was not comprehensive enough. “The development of Hong Kong started in Aberdeen and moved to Victoria Harbour, and now it moves to the Pearl River Delta, including HK’s western waters,” muses Zimmerman. “We need a masterplan for the western waters as part of the Pearl River Delta – and not one project at a time. We will end up at North Lantau as we have ended up at our last reclamation – Kowloon West – a complete jungle of infrastructure and a very bad urban plan.”

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