24 August 2019
Singapore Changi Airport (L) has beaten Hong Kong International Airport (R) as the world's best airport since 2011, according to a ranking by Skytrax.
Singapore Changi Airport (L) has beaten Hong Kong International Airport (R) as the world's best airport since 2011, according to a ranking by Skytrax.

How does HK stack up versus Singapore in airport expansion race?

The rivalry between Hong Kong and Singapore in the financial and trade sectors has, not surprisingly, stretched into the aviation industry, with both cities aiming to be the No.1 transport hubs in the region. 

Keeping an eye on the future, authorities in the two ‘world cities’ are seeking to expand their airport infrastructure through multi-billion dollar initiatives. 

But as everyone knows, planning is one thing, implementation is another. So, how are the rivals actually faring with regard to their ambitious ventures? 

Looking at the way things are as of now, Hong Kong has reason to be worried.

The city’s proposed third runway at the Chek Lap Kok airport is facing fresh uncertainty as a green group has sought judicial review on the project.

Singapore, on the other hand, appears to be moving ahead with a US$3 billion expansion program to add a massive, futuristic fifth terminal at the Changi Airport, already named the world’s best in recent surveys.

Hong Kong officials have said a new runway is important to maintain the city’s competitiveness. The plan is to get the new facility up and running in 2023.

From the initial planning in 2011 to the scheduled start of construction next year, it has already taken about five years.

Now, there is renewed debate on whether the city really needs the new runway and if the HK$141.5 billion (US$18.25 billion) cost can be justified.

In Singapore, Changi’s expansion scheme was first mentioned by the city-state’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his 2013 National Day speech.

In less than two years, construction of the fifth terminal complex, which will have an impressive glass roof canopy and a huge artificial waterfall, is already moving into top gear.

Completion is scheduled for 2018, just a year after Changi’s fourth terminal is set to open in 2017.

Hong Kong debate

Coming back to Hong Kong, public opinion of the new runway is divided even as the project has gone through all the approval procedures.

Amid filibustering tactics of opposition lawmakers, the Leung Chun-ying administration decided to bypass Legislative Council scrutiny and get the runway project financed by the Airport Authority itself through planned market borrowings, hike in charges on airlines and a special levy on passengers.

This plan has stirred up new controversies on top of environmental and airspace rights concerns. 

Meanwhile, in Singapore, authorities do not need to face so many questions and objections, thanks to the city-state’s authoritarian style of leadership.

The new facilities at Changi will be solely funded by government through a dedicated Changi Airport Development Fund. There will be a capital injection of S$3 billion (US$2.2 billion), which could be topped up further later.

The Lion City’s commitment to prioritize aviation development is obvious, given the funding despite the government running a budget deficit.

The city’s aim is clear — boosting Changi’s annual handling capacity to over 135 million passengers and more.

Singaporeans and international passengers departing from the airport won’t be asked to pay any extra fee to should the project cost.

Also, Changi has been offering concessions to airlines with a 50 percent discount on apron parking fees and 15 percent discount on aerobridge charges since last year.

This is in contrast to Hong Kong which is planning to raise its charges further.

Contrasting picture

Given the different approaches, observers fear budget or regional operators could move away from Hong Kong and flock to Changi.

Changi currently operates two runways and the third one, now reserved for the city-state’s air force, can be swiftly extended for commercial use.

Anyone visiting Changi will be impressed by the huge, picturesque green space and golf courses near the airport. The existing land – the result of reclamation work decades ago – can be readily used to build a fourth runway.

Hong Kong does not have such luxury, and it has to create land from the sea north of the current airport island.

Such a large reclamation project, together with the additional spending on environmental conservation, is the reason why the new runway will be among the world’s most expensive.

If the project is delayed by judicial review or labor shortage, the cost will swell further than what is envisaged right now.

Local officials seem to suggest that the future of Chek Lap Kok will be guaranteed with one more runway. Now, what about other facilities like new terminals?

Media reports reveal that the Airport Authority has quietly downsized the new terminal that will serve the third runway.

From the original “double Y” layout, as shown in the airport Master Plan 2030 gazetted in 2011, it is now said to be just half in scale. Also, a planned X-shaped new terminal in the reserved middle field with 44 jet bridge gates has been replaced by a much smaller one with only 20 new gates.

The major reason that Chek Lap Kok has been dragged down from the top spot in world airport rankings is travel experience, which, in turn, has much to do with the worsening inadequacy of terminal space and jet bridges.

Rather than being ferried through a bridge directly onto the aircraft, travelers at Chek Lap Kok often have to take a bus — usually filled with the pungent smell of aviation fuel — to a plane parked far away and asked to climb stairs to get on board.

Given the hot temperatures in summer, surely it’s not a pleasant prospect.

Hong Kong Airport has a total of just 49 aerobridge gates, all in Terminal 1 and unchanged since its inauguration 16 years ago.

Changi, meanwhile, has a total of 92 such gates. This is despite the fact that Changi handles fewer passengers annually than Chek Lap Kok.

With the Hong Kong government devoting all its energies to the new runway, observers are wondering if it is coming at the expense of other important infrastructure.

If the administration is ready to pour billions of dollars into a new runway, why does it hesitate to spend a far lesser amount on support facilities like larger terminals and more aerobridges — this is the question being raised by critics.

– Contact us at [email protected] 


Travelers love Hong Kong airport’s clean, bright and spacious lounges but insufficient jetbridges and other support facilities are a cause for concern. Photo: Government Info Services

Artist’s impression of Changi’s fifth terminal.

EJ Insight writer

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