LONDON – With Hong Kong offering some of the strictest COVID-19 restrictions at present, will the airport’s planned third runway be a waste or a golden opportunity?
The third runway received its 1st flight inspection on March 26, with it costing around 10% of the total HK$141.5 billion being made in the expansion project.
Such a question was posed by someone who replied to the tweet above, which does produce an interesting and intriguing argument.
This piece will look at whether it is a waste or whether using the COVID restrictions is a good opportunity to get on with some good old undistracted work while the airport is operating at a very limited capacity.
An Overview of The Three-Runway System (3RS)…
The three-runway system, as Hong Kong Airport believes, “is almost equal to building a new airport next to the existing one” (ThreeRunwaySystem, 2022).
As mentioned on their website, the following seven projects will take place under 3RS:
- Reclaiming approximately 650 hectares of land north of the existing airport island (equivalent to 34 Victoria Parks, or 100 artificial islands for the New Wing of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre), using non-dredge methods including deep cement mixing.
- Building the T2 Concourse and an associated apron.
- Building a new, 3,800-meter-long runway and its supporting taxiway systems. The existing North Runway will also be reconfigured.
- Expanding Terminal 2 to provide full-fledged passenger services including arrivals and departures facilities.
- Building a new, 2,600-meter-long Automated People Mover (APM) system that will connect Terminal 2 with the T2 Concourse. The new APM system will operate at a top speed of 80km/h and transport up to 10 800 passengers per hour.
- Building a new Baggage Handling System (BHS) linking Terminal 2 with the T2 Concourse. The new BHS will be capable of handling 9 600 bags per hour.
- Building other associated airport support infrastructure, road network, and transportation facilities.
The third runway is expected to be completed this year, with the entire 3RS program expected to be completed by 2024, which will align well with the country’s integral “vision to transform HKIA from a city airport into an airport city” (ibid).
Is It A Waste?
At this moment in time, especially looking at the short-term with the pandemic, there are arguments to offer that when the runway is completed in 2022, it won’t be as operational as will be achieved.
Hong Kong’s mainline carrier Cathay Pacific handled 31,253 passengers last month, which is “a 98.9% decrease compared to the pre-pandemic level in February 2019” (Cathay Pacific, 2022).
Chief Customer & Commercial Officer Ronald Lam commented on these results, deeming the restrictions “very challenging”.
“The operating environment for Cathay Pacific remains very challenging.”
“Travel and operational restrictions in place in Hong Kong continued to constrain our ability to operate more passenger flight capacity in February and we operated below 2% of pre-COVID-19 levels, a reduction of about 28% compared with January 2022.”
“We have remained as agile as possible, deploying passenger flight capacity to cater to last-minute demand, on top of ongoing traffic from the Chinese Mainland to long-haul destinations as well as post-Chinese New Year traffic from Hong Kong to the Chinese Mainland.”
“We also saw some demand for flights to Australia, notably student traffic from the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong. As a result, we carried more passengers in February than we did in January. Load factor edged up to reach about 48%.”
Whilst the argument may be there that it is just Cathay Pacific is struggling, so is the airport.
Despite the figure of 86,000 passengers handled in February 2022 being “a year-on-year increase of 80.2%… passenger volume continued to remain significantly lower than the pre-pandemic level recorded in 2019” (AAHK, 2022).
Therefore, for as long as restrictions continue in Hong Kong, the maximum utilization of the third runway won’t be seen anytime soon.
Thinking for the Future…
Pre-pandemic, Hong Kong Airport handled around “71.5 million passengers and 419,730 flight movements in 2019”, which are strong numbers when in full operation (Driskill, 2022).
By the time 3RS is completed, the airport believes that it will have “the capacity to handle around 100 million passengers” per year by 2030 (ThreeRunwaySystem, 2016).
With that in mind, the counter-argument for it being a waste is that those who criticize the construction of this project are being too narrow-minded, especially when just thinking about COVID and COVID only.
To handle 100 million passengers per year would put the airport in close competition with the likes of Atlanta Airport in terms of passenger numbers, with the American airport handling “just over 110 million passengers in 2019” (Hayward, 2021).
Such a fact would be significant for Hong Kong Airport, especially as it tries to expand its presence in the rest of the world.
What remains clear is that Hong Kong Airport isn’t in a good position at present, especially with the COVID restrictions that are currently in place in the country.
However, this does definitely give the airport a lot of time to get a lot of work done, meaning that 3RS will continue to press ahead with the work that needs to be done to begin hitting more milestones.
It is only a matter of time before Hong Kong Premier Carrie Lam lifts the restrictions, and when she does, Hong Kong Airport can return to some level of normalcy once again.
- ThreeRunwaySystem (2022), Three-Runway System, https://www.threerunwaysystem.com/en/three-runway-system/project-overview/ [Last Accessed 27/3/22]
- Cathay Pacific (2022), Cathay Pacific releases traffic figures for February 2022, https://news.cathaypacific.com/cathay-pacific-releases-traffic-figures-for-february-2022 [Last Accessed 27/3/22]
- AAHK (2022), Airport Authority Announces Traffic Figures of Hong Kong International Airport in February 2022, https://www.hongkongairport.com/en/media-centre/press-release/2022/pr_1585 [Last Accessed 27/3/22]
- Driskill, M. (2020), Hong Kong Airport Sees Decline in Pax Traffic in 2019, AsianAviation, https://asianaviation.com/hong-kong-airport-sees-decline-in-pax-traffic-in-2019/#:~:text=The%20Airport%20Authority%20of%20Hong%20Kong%20said%20Hong,percent%20decline%20in%20flight%20movements%20compared%20to%202018. [Last Accessed 27/3/22]
- ThreeRunwaySystem (2016), Construction of Three-runway System Kicks off at HKIA, https://www.threerunwaysystem.com/en/information-centre/press-release/01082016/ [Last Accessed 27/3/22]
- Hayward, J. (2021), Why Atlanta Is The World’s Busiest Airport, Simple Flying, https://simpleflying.com/atlanta-worlds-busiest-airport/#:~:text=According%20to%20data%20from%20Airports%20Council%20International%20%28ACI%29%2C,been%20the%20busiest%20airport%20each%20year%20since%201998. [Last Accessed 27/3/22]