The third runway at Hong Kong International Airport, now in service, is set to propel the city’s status as a global aviation hub and strengthen HKIA’s competitiveness. Ao Yulu reports from Hong Kong.

A panoramic view of the third runway at Hong Kong International Airport. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The opening of the third runway at Hong Kong International Airport last month will ease bottlenecks in its capacity limitations, offering a silver lining to the aviation sector disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and helping to consolidate Hong Kong’s status as a global aviation hub, industry experts say.

The new 3,800-meter-long, 60-meter-wide runway is part of the three-runway-system project, which started construction in August 2016, with total costs estimated at HK$141.5 billion ($18.14 billion).

Hong Kong International Airport, with the three-runway system, will have the capacity to meet the projected demand of 120 million passengers and 10 million metric tons of cargo annually by 2035.

Vivian Cheung Kar-fay, executive director of airport operations at Airport Authority Hong Kong

The mega project also includes the expansion of Terminal 2, the building of a new T2 concourse, an automated people mover system and a high-speed baggage handling system. The entire project is due to be completed by 2024.

The expanded airport will be able to handle 120 million passengers and 10 million metric tons of cargo annually when it’s fully operational. This would strengthen Hong Kong’s status as an international aviation hub, as outlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).

Former chief executive of the special administrative region Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor charted the course for Hong Kong’s aviation development in her 2021 policy address, highlighting the importance of the three-runway-system project in the city’s bid to become a global aviation hub. 

“The three-runway-system project to increase the airport’s capacity is a strategic investment to enhance the competitiveness of Hong Kong International Airport. It’s also a key infrastructure project to enable a ‘city airport’ to be transformed into an ‘airport city’,” she said.

The new runway’s opening came a day after the HKSAR government put its flight suspension mechanism on ice, saying that to continue implementing the system is “comparatively not very cost-effective” in preventing the importation of COVID-19 cases at this stage. Under the policy, about 100 flight routes had to be canceled this year.

Passenger traffic at HKIA surged 121.7 percent year-on-year to 842,000 in the first six months of this year, while cargo volume declined by 8.2 percent to 2.1 million metric tons, according to Airport Authority Hong Kong. In June alone, the number of passengers jumped 254.1 percent to 295,000, compared with the same month a year earlier.

Although the figures showed a remarkable improvement in Hong Kong’s aviation business, the passenger volume was still far below pre-pandemic levels.

HKIA handled 75 million passengers in the 2018-19 fiscal year — the third-highest in the world in terms of international air passenger traffic — and 5 million metric tons of cargo, topping the world in airfreight volume, according to HKIA data.

Andrew Yuen Chi-lok, director of Policy and Knowledge Transfer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Aviation Policy and Research Centre, said the SAR’s role as a global aviation hub is very important as it enables the city to build a comprehensive network (in the sky), including the number of air routes and flights.

A Government Flying Service plane lands after finishing an “operation familiarization” exercise on the new runway on July 8. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Larger scope

“Until the opening of the third runway, the runway capacity at HKIA wasn’t that adequate,” Yuen said. “So, we were constrained when we thought of taking in new flight destinations or increasing the number of flights. In the long run, the capacity limitations could be a major obstacle for Hong Kong in becoming a world aviation hub.”

“But now, we have the third runway. There will be no more obstacles in terms of capacity. It’s very helpful in promoting Hong Kong’s international position,” he said.

The Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area has the highest airport density in the world, with seven civil aviation facilities operating in the 11-city cluster, including three international aviation hubs in Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Apart from Hong Kong, other cities in the region are also moving fast, believing that the development of the Greater Bay Area will attract a tremendous number of businesspeople and tourists.

Shenzhen is ramping up efforts to build a third runway at its Baoan airport. Guangzhou is speeding up the 54.4-billion-yuan ($8.06-billion) third-phase expansion project at Baiyun International Airport which, when completed, will become the largest civil airport in the country in terms of the number of runways and the terminal’s construction area.

Hong Kong’s third runway will enable it to further increase its international flight routes, boosting its global competitiveness. At present, the SAR operates flights to more than 220 destinations worldwide. The new runway will also offer more opportunities for Hong Kong to strengthen links and cooperation with other cities in the Greater Bay Area.

A professional, who has been in the aviation, cargo and logistics sector for over a decade, said the third runway’s opening and the entire three-runway-system project will not only expand Hong Kong’s capacity in passenger flight services in future, but will also provide a solution for promoting cargo services in adjacent areas.

According to AAHK, it is developing a logistics park in Dongguan, Guangdong province, and a new airside intermodal cargo handling facility at HKIA. These projects will expand its catchment area and tap the growing demand for airfreight services in the Greater Bay Area.

Vivian Cheung Kar-fay, executive director of airport operations at AAHK, said HKIA, with the three-runway system, will have the capacity to meet the projected demand of 120 million passengers and 10 million metric tons of cargo annually by 2035.

She said AAHK is working with business partners to prepare for the expected increase in flights and passengers following the government’s easing of inbound passenger control measures, to ensure there will be adequate labor.

Yuen said resuming normal travel between Hong Kong and the world as well as between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland is vital for the city’s aviation industry. “Although local airlines will definitely stay here and retain their operations in Hong Kong, some foreign airlines may consider relocating their connecting flights to other cities temporarily,” he said.

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