20 January 2019
A third runway is needed to sustain Hong Kong's development and maintain its status as an international city. Photo: Bloomberg
A third runway is needed to sustain Hong Kong's development and maintain its status as an international city. Photo: Bloomberg

Value of third runway goes far beyond airport

Costing more than HK$140 billion, the third runway at Chek Lap Kok is definitely an expensive infrastructure investment.

The public have mixed feelings about its cost-effectiveness, and many experts both for and against the project have put forward a lot of figures to support their arguments.

For me, I am in favor of building the third runway, and in this article I hope to discuss the significance of the Hong Kong International Airport as the foundation on which the continued prosperity of our city relies.

An airport is the interface that connects a city with the rest of the world, and its importance simply cannot be overstated.

Hong Kong is a world city, and our international airport constitutes the core component that plays a key part in the process of the development of our connection with the world.

Hong Kong’s economic development after the colonial government spent billions of dollars back in the ’90s to build the airport at Chek Lap Kok has proven that a well-equipped airport is indispensible.

Almost all global financial and business centers like London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and even Shanghai have one thing in common: they all have more than one international airport to support their inbound and outbound air traffic. Even Beijing is building its second international airport.

Unfortunately, like Singapore, Hong Kong is too small a place to have two international airports, and we are facing limited options: either we increase the maximum capacity of our airport runways to meet future aviation traffic need, or we ask our overseas visitors to land elsewhere — nearby airports in Shenzhen and Macau.

Critics who are against building the third runway have several key arguments. Some believe Hong Kong should not entertain traffic from budget airlines and transit travelers and ought to focus on the high-end segment instead.

I have a different take. In fact, the core value of Hong Kong as a regional hub lies in its global connectivity. Focusing on high-end travelers will compromise the city’s hub status.

Meanwhile, air cargo accounts for 42 percent of Hong Kong’s trade value. While the city has been losing its competitiveness in the shipping sector, aviation is the core competitiveness we still maintain.

Some also suggest that apart from the HK$140 billion construction cost, there are a lot of social and environmental costs associated with the project, and it would prove difficult for us to recover those costs in the long run.

Again, this criticism is not entirely accurate.

Although the Chek Lap Kok airport is located on the west coast of Lantau Island, it is linked with Central and West Kowloon by the railway express, and it takes no more than half an hour to get to downtown.

In this way the accessibility of our Central Business District (CBD) from the airport is greatly enhanced. Like what Professor Chris Webster pointed out in his article Accessibility Pricing, there is a close connection between property prices and accessibility.

The fact that visitors to Hong Kong can have easy access to our CBD from the airport indeed provides a strong support for the prices and rental rates of commercial properties on both sides of the Victoria Harbour.

The international convention and exhibition business is one of Hong Kong’s key service industries, providing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue.

Because of the easy accessibility of our exhibition and convention facilities from the airport, we are highly competitive in this area. This makes us a convention and exhibition hub in the region.

I believe the value of the third runway should be measured by the overall benefits it brings to our society, which include jobs, capital inflow and business opportunities, rather than just the number of incoming and outgoing flights.

In the past two years, especially after the Occupy Movement, Hong Kong people and the government have become so preoccupied with relations with the mainland. We have almost forgotten that Hong Kong’s prosperity depends on the degree to which we remain cosmopolitan and internationalized.

Our status as an international city not only gives us an edge over other mainland cities, but also offers us competitiveness and uniqueness that make us irreplaceable.

To maintain our international status and keep us competitive, it takes the right and efficient facilities that link us with the rest of the world, through which the flow of personnel, information, finance and high-end logistics can be facilitated.

In this sense, the third runway will prove instrumental in sustaining our development and maintaining our international status.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 23.

[Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

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Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, the University of Hong Kong

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