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Tuesday, August 29, 2017, 12:16
PRD aviation surges. HK suffers airspace congestion
By Chai Hua & Luis Liu
Tuesday, August 29, 2017, 12:16 By Chai Hua & Luis Liu

Airport capacity expansions fueled the boom in PRD air travel. Chai Hua and Luis Liu find the cluster of five airports creates unintended air traffic congestion. It degrades HKIA’s on-time flight reliability. Collective airport capacity will fall short of projected 2030 demand. Urgent, coordinated action is needed for positive outcomes.


The Pearl River Delta (PRD) hosts five modern airports within a 150-sq-km airspace. Four are located within a 50-km radius. The frenzied expansion in domestic and international flight capacity for Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Macao, and Hong Kong, has congested the shared airspace, delaying take-offs and landings. HKIA suffers the most because it is the premier international flight hub. Lack of unified PRD air traffic control stresses the controllers, risking safety. Planes holding waste aviation fuel and frustrate passengers. It is all becoming a nightmare of excess.


Indigestible growth

Hong Kong International Airport’s (HKIA) punctuality index plunged to 35.5 percent in the first half of 2017, against 67 percent in 2015, according to air data provider VariFlight. As a premier international hub, HKIA cannot afford to slide so dismally in prompt transits, arrivals, and departures. VariFlight records Beijing International Airport at 49.4 percent for the same period, while Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) handling 75 million passengers — seven million over HKIA — registers a 90.6 percent rating. 

By press time, neither the Hong Kong Airport Authority, nor the Civil Aviation Department, responded to China Daily’s inquiry about the sharp decline in the punctuality of scheduled flights – even after five days. 

The aggressive expansion of airport capacity by Shenzhen and Guangzhou, plus more in the pipeline for the PRD, has unnerved the authorities. The silo city approach to the common airspace, is creating unforeseen problems for the PRD aviation sector. It requires integrated capacity planning, unified air traffic management, transfer links, and optimization of relative advantages. In short, a long-term, sustainable, regional strategy.

Capacity shortfall

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of the world’s airlines, expects air passenger demand in the PRD to reach 387 million annually in 2030. However, the total passenger capacity of all PRD airports is estimated to be below 240 million by 2030, in IATA figures.  That is an annual capacity shortfall of 147 million despite the planned expansions. Can the PRD aviation sector handle even more airspace congestion? This dilemma will be a challenge for the PRD planners, complicated by the separate authorities of the component cities. 

The Greater Bay Area should become a ‘double-core’ airport cluster — Guangzhou and  Hong Kong airports. HKIA should strengthen its hub for international-to-international transfers, while Guangzhou should prioritize international-to-domestic transfers and domestic air services.

Chen Xiaoning, secretary-general of the China Civil Airports Association 

Greater Bay Area vision

In March, the central government declared the Greater Bay Area (GBA) vision for a metropolitan cluster at the PRD. The cluster comprises Hong Kong, Macao and nine cities in Guangdong, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Dongguan and Huizhou.

Chen Xiaoning, secretary-general of the China Civil Airports Association (CCAA), in a report on the GBA concept, noted: “The passenger volume at the airports in the area has already exceeded that of the New York Bay area, reaching 180 million last year. Its density is the top in China — a very rare situation in the world — as the direct distance between the key airports is less than 150-km.” 

“Given the airspace constraints, we must clarify the position and priorities of each airport, to grasp the opportunities of the integrated plan to build a dynamic airport cluster,” concluded Chen.

Who calls the shots?

A cooperation plan signed mid-July 2017 between the civil aviation authorities of the Chinese mainland, Macao and Hong Kong, seeks to set up mechanisms for daily coordination and emergency liaison, to boost contingency planning. The intent is to automate work processes and use advanced technology to simulate airspace conditions in the GBA for precise, detailed analysis, to coordinate air traffic management and planning.

This pact is the first concrete step taken by all the PRD parties, to operate within an agreed framework of complementarity, rather than wasteful rivalry. Industry experts call for practical steps to deepen cooperation. Short of a unified authority with power to mandate solutions, this unwieldy coalition will more likely lobby partisan agendas.

Philip Chen Nan-lok, former CEO of Cathay Pacific Airways, cited a study by the company showing that if the five PRD airports work under a unified airspace control system, the flights that depart and land in the region could generate additional HK$24 billion in economic benefits, and save up to 100 million tonnes of aviation fuel — caused by forced holding patterns for landings and take-offs.

Zheng Tianxiang, deputy director of the Center for Studies of Hong Kong, Macao & Pearl River Delta at Sun Yat-sen University, suggests the five operating airports swap shares, and combine ground transport services. Equity cross-holdings would advance common interest and shared benefits. Zheng acknowledges that would require strong guidance from the central government.

‘Double-core’ cluster?

Chen Xiaoning reckons the GBA should become a “double-core” airport cluster — Guangzhou & Hong Kong airports. “HKIA should strengthen its hub for international-to-international transfers, while Guangzhou should prioritize international-to-domestic transfers and domestic air services,” he said.

Wang Xiaohua, chief advisor of Kent Ridge Consulting Inc — an international management consultant for civil aviation companies — believes HKIA should focus on intercontinental routes within the inter-city aviation matrix. “Opening up intercontinental routes comes with huge risks, so it’s not an easy decision for other airlines and airports, while HKIA has many advantages,” she explained. “So far, Guangzhou focuses on routes to Australia, while Shenzhen has started some intercontinental ones. But, the number cannot compare with HKIA.” However, she noted that Shenzhen’s rapid rise in the innovative high-tech industries, gives it a global digital economy enabler appeal. 

Zheng agreed that airports have evolved from moving people and cargo, to become connecting hubs for manufacturing and commerce. The PRD is upgrading into high-tech industries for biomedicine, robotics, and smart chips. It is becoming a new driver for international business traffic into the PRD. Hong Kong’s plans align with neighboring cities in these industries, said Zheng.

Infrastructure links

The completion of major infrastructure projects, like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge by the end of 2017, will cut travel time between Hong Kong and Zhuhai to 30 minutes, from four hours. The Hong Kong government projects daily traffic of 50,000 to 70,000 vehicles once the link is operational. 

The year 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of HKIA’s investment in and joint management of Zhuhai’s Jinwan Airport, raising passenger volume six-fold, to an annual total of 6.13 million passengers. Zhuhai Airport itself projects passenger volume to grow to 12 million by 2020. The HKIA’s third runway is planned to operate by 2023. 

The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL), due to operate late next year, is projected to move up to 100,000 travelers entering and leaving Hong Kong daily. Commuters can go from the rail terminus in West Kowloon, where the Airport Express Station is located, to HKIA in just 20 minutes.

Mainland traffic slows

Shen Jianfa, professor and chairman of the Geography & Resource Management Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the three airports will benefit as the PRD enlarges the pie for all. He notes the rapid growth in the number of mainland visitors has been a key factor in the development of HKIA in the past decade, but that is slowing as Guangzhou and Shenzhen expand their international air services. 

The Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics shows the ratio of mainland travelers using HKIA rose from 18 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2015 but the rate of annual growth fell from 20 percent in 2011 to 5.83 percent in 2015. According to IATA, Hong Kong’s share of the market linking the Chinese mainland with the rest of the world dropped from 20 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2013.

International passengers using Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou and Shenzhen’s Bao’an International Airport in 2016, surged 19 percent and 34 percent, respectively. Total passenger volume at Guangzhou airport is projected to exceed 100 million by 2025 when a new terminal enters service next year. The airport’s total aircraft movements last year reached 435,231 — surpassing that of HKIA.

The five operating airports should swap shares, and combine their transport services as equity cross-holdings would advance common interest and shared benefits. That would require strong guidance from the central government.”

Zheng Tianxiang, deputy director of the Center for Studies of Hong Kong, Macao & Pearl River Delta at Sun Yat-sen University

Unsure about Shenzhen

It is ironic that Hong Kong has yet to work out comprehensive aviation coordination with Shenzhen, its closest mainland city, other than for a few bus and boat links. In 2016, the airport authorities of both cities agreed to cooperate further to share traffic loads. 

In his 2007 Policy Address, former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen revealed a blueprint for a 50-km rail link between HKIA and Shenzhen’s Bao’an International Airport. It was to simplify the transfer process for travelers to Shenzhen’s airport and shorten the travel time between the two airports from two hours to 20 minutes. 

It was also planned to link into Shenzhen’s metro rail system, for seamless transport between both cities, and to boost new town development. The HK government has since shelved the rail project indefinitely. The Highways Department held that the astronomical costs, estimated at over HK$110 billion (at 2013 prices), cast doubts on the project’s economic viability.

The Pearl River Delta (PRD) hosts five modern airports within a 150-sq-km airspace. Four are located within a 50-km radius. The frenzied expansion in domestic and international flight capacity for Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Macao, and Hong Kong, has congested the shared airspace, delaying take-offs and landings. HKIA suffers the most because it is the premier international flight hub. Lack of unified PRD air traffic control stresses the controllers, risking safety. Planes holding waste aviation fuel and frustrate passengers. It is all becoming a nightmare of excess.

Hong Kong transport lobbyists claim the HKIA-Bao’an rail link would be a win-win situation and leverage HKIA’s third runway capacity. They questioned whether the withdrawal is because the HK government is reluctant to deal with extensive questioning of project viability, and filibustering tactics in the legislature. 

The government is implementing other infrastructure projects, including the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Western Corridor which connects to the Shenzhen Bay checkpoint and the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link, for completion in 2019.

Academics warn that Hong Kong may lose the aviation business to Shenzhen as Bao’an International Airport would be the connecting point for the future Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge, the Guangzhou-Dongguan-Shenzhen Intercity Railway Network and the Shenzhen-Maoming High Speed Railway, in the mainland’s planning documents.

Cheaper direct flights

Meanwhile, it is cheaper to fly from airports in Guangdong to destinations worldwide. More mainland passengers opt to fly direct instead of via Hong Kong, saving on transport, accommodation, and other expenses. Shenzhen is targeting secondary destinations abroad. Flying direct from Seattle to Shenzhen costs only HK$300 more than routing through Hong Kong.

Jiang Siqin, in charge of Shenzhen international flight tickets cooperation at C-trip — China’s biggest online travel agency — confirms the growing number of passengers taking direct flights to and from Shenzhen. Its international passenger load factor stood at 75 to 85 percent last year, and is rising.

Guangdong Airport services mainland carriers, including China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines, tapping into overseas destinations. The high charges at HKIA have kept many mainland carriers away. The Hong Kong Airport Authority cut charges by 15 percent seven years ago, but reverted to their previous high level, in 2016. 

HKIA charges a B737-800 aircraft 25,300-yuan ($3,800) a trip, compared to the 17,000-yuan standard tariff charged at mainland airports for international flights, according to CARNOC. Macao airport charges 16,000-yuan.

SUMMARY

• The PRD has 5 airports within 150-km — 4 within 50-km radius

• Unified Air Traffic control over the shared airspace is vital

• Air Traffic congestion has degraded HKIA’s flight punctuality

• Mainland flyers and cargo will increasingly use domestic airports

• Clearer development strategies need to be defined for each airport

• Integrating productive PRD aviation growth needs higher-level coordination

Contact the writers at grace@chinadailyhk.com and luisliu@chinadailyhk.com


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