Shenzhen has just announced its decision to turn its Airport into an “International Hub.” This means building a 3rd Runway with another new Terminal, hot on the heels of having opened a 2nd Runway and brand new eye-catching terminal just last year. Both Guangzhou and Hong Kong are ‘hub airports’ that are granted State support but Shenzhen has limited international connections and doesn’t want to miss out on South China’s international air travel bonanza.
The five PRD airports are growing at an astonishing rate. Their proximity (four of the five are within 60kms whilst Guangzhou Airport is about 140km from Hong Kong) and respective airspace arrangements create tremendous operational complexities. There are three different air navigation services providers (ANSPs) in the region: Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Hong Kong. Macau airport traffic operates through Hong Kong approach airspace. Aircraft flying near or across sector boundaries are frequently delayed as they would be transferred from one controlling facility to another. The airspace in the region is thus not surprisingly one of the most congested in the world. This congestion is compounded by the fact that the Chinese military wields significant control over the allocation of all mainland airspace, limiting routes and imposing altitude stipulations for all entering and exiting air traffic.
In its Master Plan 2030, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong stated that to fully realize the potential capacity gain of its proposed ‘Third Runway’, the PRD airspace would need to be completely redesigned. So whilst ground capacity is increased at a never ending rate, just where is there room for all those planes in the sky? It appears that passenger ground capacity will increase by 25% by 2020, but can the airspace actually cope with this or will it lead to just 25% more delayed flights? At this rate there seems to be no formal plan or solutions.
It would appear that there must be some benefits from strategic airport planning for the region. However the way air services are licensed, which in turn is governed by air services agreements between different jurisdictions, disentangling the noodle strands of interwoven approvals would appear to be more taxing than building a new airport. The independent airports just keep expanding, concerned that they will lose share to the other competing PRD cities. Shenzhen, last to the table by virtue of its recent miraculous birth, now wants to compete with both Guangzhou and Hong Kong for all that international growth.
All this air capacity expansion comes despite the Chinese government’s determination to continually expand the world’s largest high speed rail network which is now a clear competitor for domestic air services. And it’s not just the runways that need to be part of a joined-up plan. With the airport expansion comes all the other necessary infrastructure including controversial land reclamation, highway development and public transport connections. Shenzhen airport expansion is coupled with the planned Shenzhen - Zhongshan Bridge across the Pearl River whilst Hong Kong is currently building the white elephant, road only, Hong Kong – Zhuhai - Macau Bridge, at a ridiculous cost to the taxpayer. A rail rather than road bridge extension could have seamlessly connected both Zhuhai and Macau with Hong Kong Airport rather than encouraged further road traffic into an already congested Hong Kong.
Despite bludgeoning its way through with the planning of a 3rd runway, poor old Hong Kong appears to be in danger of being completely left behind anyway. With the time it takes to get through public consultation, environmental impact assessment and finance approvals, the Chinese cities have conceived, planned, built and are already operating their new terminals and runways. Coupled with that, Hong Kong’s past determination to develop the city by continually building unnecessary infrastructure based on spurious transport and planning projections has meant that that the general public has now lost all faith in the mega projects proposed for the Territory. Development ideas have repeatedly been generated from behind the closed doors of vested interest, with a price tag already fluttering; the propaganda machine cranked out; the public consulted but not heeded; the material issues deflected and the money poured on the grounds that Hong Kong must “keep up with the neighbours.” An increasingly militant population just won’t wear it any longer and are stressing immediate quality of life issues over future un-measureable economic potentials.
Contrast this with the landmark decision by the UK Government in 2010 to block the construction of a 3rd runway at London Heathrow together with new runways at London Gatwick and London Stanstead. The main alternative arguments to Heathrow expansion included a greater use of regional airports in the UK to create more capacity and a planned greater use of High Speed rail which will reduce domestic flights and negate the need for more air capacity.