Hong Kong Airport will spend billions to add a new terminal and expand Chek Lap Kok Island to make room for a third runway, but the needed expansion could take the better part of a decade to complete.
Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) is in desperate need of more capacity, but earning approval for planned improvements is proving to be painfully slow going. The Cathay Pacific base was named the world’s busiest cargo airport as of 2010. Although the impressive facility opened in 1988, a meteoric rise in air traffic is already causing growing pains at the airport.
Meanwhile, the ambitious “Hong Kong Airport Master Plan 2030” which promises to allow the Pacific Rim hub to handle upwards of 600,000 aircraft annually is in danger of not being completed in time to meet revised air traffic demands at HKG. The key to the long-term plan to increase the airport’s capacity relies heavily on adding a third runway, but the three-runway system is not expected to be operational until 2023 at the earliest.
Adding a third runway to HKG has its share of challenges, not the least of which is expanding an island that is already primarily man-made to accommodate the massive construction project. Planners have also met fierce resistance from community and environmental groups. Concerns over possible jet engine noise issues, protected species of fish and the habitat of white dolphins have combined to make a quick completion of the critical expansion nearly impossible.
Cathay Pacific, the airport’s biggest tenant, has repeatedly urged officials to expedite the three-runway project lest the airline fall behind regional rivals. The struggling Hong Kong flag carrier boldly suggested starting construction sooner rather than later and hammering out community and environmental conflicts as the project proceeded.
“It is natural that many questions need to be asked regarding such an expensive and complex project, but while it might seem desirable to appease all parties and resolve every little issue before work begins, this is simply not feasible for a project of this magnitude,” the Cathay CEO Ivan Chu wrote in an open letter to officials in 2015. “Given that there is broad agreement on the economic importance of the third runway, the only way to drive the project forward at maximum speed is to resolve any issues in tandem with construction going ahead.”
Though the expansion project seems to now be well underway. HKG has hit snag after snag as other airports in the region appear to have quickly stepped in to fill the perceived gap in capacity. The South China Morning Post points out that in a fraction of time officials in Hong Kong have spent debating the merits of increasing airport capacity, Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) managed to construct and cut the ribbon on a new state-of-the-art fourth terminal which is expected to allow the airport to now handle nearly 82 million passengers annually. “While Singapore began building its fourth terminal in 2013, Hong Kong only got an environmental permit, allowing barges and sea cranes to begin dredging the seabed off Lantau Island for the airport expansion, in 2014,” the newspaper lamented.