With operations at Hong Kong International Airport well into their second decade, Barry Woods-Turner analyses the facility’s development and previews its exciting prospects.
Most people will be familiar with the iconic images taken during the 1970s and 1980s of large passenger airliners swooping low over the roof tops of the densely populated Kowloon City on their final approach into Kai Tak Airport. But as the city continued to grow, so did Hong Kong’s importance as a major global freight and logistics hub, and with no space to expand the facility in any direction a decision had to be made to ensure the city maintained its position as a leading player in the region. However, at the time there was a great deal of political uncertainty following the 1984 signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration – an agreement to transfer sovereignty of Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 – and as a consequence it was many more years before a decision was taken to build a new airport.
Finally, in September 1991 the two respective governments signed a memorandum of understanding giving their firm support to the project. Meanwhile, a suitable site had been identified – the small islands of Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau, off Lantau Island in the South China Sea, would enable flights to be routed out over water rather than over the densely populated city. It took nearly two years to negotiate the construction contracts before work on the project finally started in 1993 and five years later on July 6, 1998, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) launched operations, with the arrival of Cathay Pacific Airways Flight CX889 from New York, which touched down at 06.27. Since then, HKIA has grown to become the world’s eleventh busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic, according to figures released by Airports Council International (ACI), with more than 50 million passengers using the facility during 2010, an increase of 10% over the previous year. But it is Hong Kong’s importance as a trade and logistics centre that enabled it to surpass Memphis, USA, for the first time as the world’s number one air cargo hub, handling 4,168,394 tonnes of freight during 2010, an increase of 23.2% over 2009. Today, 95 airlines operate around 900 daily flights into and out of HKIA, serving more than 160 destinations around the globe, including 45 in mainland China.
Development of aviation in Hong Kong
Hong Kong had been a British Colony since the mid-1800s following the defeat of Chinese forces during the Second Opium War. Aviation first arrived there a century ago, when Belgian aviation pioneer Charles Van den Born made the first powered flight on March 18, 1911, from Yuen Chau Kok beach in the New Territories. But it was two Chinese businessmen, Sir Ho Kai and Mr Au Tak, who through their Kai Tak Investment Company, became most closely associated with the development of Hong Kong’s first airport. The pair’s original idea of developing land in the Kowloon district and establishing a residential garden city, however, was unsuccessful and the land was transferred to the government. A year later, in 1925, Kai Tak Aerodrome was opened on the reclaimed land and operations started using a single grass airstrip with the Royal Air Force soon taking up residence there, followed by the creation of several flying clubs. During World War Two the airfield fell under Japanese control, with the facility being substantially enlarged with the addition of two concrete runways, 13/31 and 07/25, which were constructed by prisoners of war.
After the cessation of hostilities, airlines began introducing larger four-engined aircraft into their fleets and this forced the British Government to review the infrastructure of the airport to accommodate the needs of these larger piston airliners. In 1954, a revised master plan for the development of Kai Tak was completed, including the creation of a 150-acre (60.75ha) promontory that would be reclaimed from the sea to allow the construction of the new 7,050ft (2,194m) Runway 13/31. The runway became operational on September 12, 1958. Over the next two decades air travel became increasingly popular and larger airliners were introduced, but there was little room for any more airfield expansion, with suburban areas already right up to the boundary fence. The same applied to the city itself and with Hong Kong confined by its topography the only option available for future growth was to build upwards. Eventually the resulting skyscrapers squeezed the viability of the airport to breaking point by making it more and more difficult to fly into and out of the airport.
By the early 1990s, Kai Tak had become one of the world’s busiest airports and it was regularly exceeding its capacity, which had an adverse effect on both passenger and cargo flights. During this period it was reported that on average one in every three flights suffered a delay, either due to lack of ramp space, insufficient gates or because of the single runway operations. In addition, the government introduced stricter noise reduction measures that restricted night time flights.
As early as 1974 a planning study led by the Hong Kong Civil Aviation and Public Works Department identified the small island of Chek Lap Kok, off Lantau Island, as a possible alternative site for an international airport. It was well away from the populated areas of the city and would offer clear flight paths across the South China Sea, with the added bonus of round-the-clock operations using multiple runways. However, it wasn’t until October 11, 1989, that the plan to construct Chek Lap Kok Airport was announced by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir David Wilson, as part of an overall port and airport development strategy.
It was another two years before the final hurdle was overcome when the governments of the UK and the People’s Republic of China signed a memorandum of understanding to support the Chek Lap Kok project and the associated Airport Core Programme. The development cost more than HK$20 billion (US$2.58 billion) and involved levelling Chek Lap Kok and Lam Chau islands and reclaiming 3.62 sq miles (9.38km²) of the adjacent seabed. The platform created by this massive project measured 4.82 sq miles (12.48km²) and added nearly 1% to Hong Kong’s total surface area. In January 1995, the largest construction contract of the entire Airport Core Programme was announced; this was the HK$10.1 billion (US$1.3 billion) project for HKIA’s Terminal 1. The innovative terminal was designed by the renowned British-born architect, Sir Norman Foster.
Building the airport was just part of the project. The programme also involved creating a new 21-mile (34km) transportation corridor from Hong Kong Island to the facility, which incorporated a high-speed rail system, two tunnels, two bridges and a six-lane expressway as well as major land reclamation projects on both Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon. The SkyPier, which was built adjacent to the airport, is a cross-border ferry service that provides important connectivity between the Pearl River Delta region and the international destinations served through HKIA. Ferry passengers have the added advantage that they don’t need to go through Hong Kong immigration and customs formalities.
Work on the facility was completed in early 1998 and on February 20 a twin-engined Government Flying Service aircraft made the first landing at the new airport – commercial flights began five months later. The airport has two parallel runways, each 12,468ft (3,800m) long; the southern one is equipped with Category II Precision Approach, and the northern one has a Category III rating which allows pilots to land in only 656ft (200m) visibility. Both can handle 60 movements an hour.
Owned and operated by the Airport Authority of Hong Kong, a statutory body that is wholly-owned by the Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Chek Lap Kok’s official opening suffered several technical teething problems. To begin with the flight information display system suddenly shut down, causing long delays, and then a critical database for cargo services was accidentally lost which meant the authorities had to turn away freight flights until the problem was sorted out. There were also various organisational, mechanical and technical problems which threatened to cripple the airport, but eventually these were sorted out and the facility settled down to normal operations.
At the time of its completion, Terminal 1 at HKIA was the world’s largest at 6,135,430sq ft (570,000m²) but in recent years it has been surpassed by both Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 (16,145,866 sq ft / 150,000m²) and Beijing Capital International Airport’s Terminal 3 (10,613,216 sq ft / 986,185m²). Designed to cope with the rapid movement of millions of passengers, the facility has 288 check-in counters, 200 immigration desks and 80 customs positions. It also boasts 1.5 miles (2.5km) of moving walkways and around 120 shops. The terminal is equipped with 70 boarding gates with 63 jet bridge gates and seven virtual gates which are used as assembly points for passengers, who are then ferried to their aircraft by bus. Currently, of the 63 jet bridges available, five are capable of handling the Airbus A380, with Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Korean Air all operating the superjumbo into HKIA. On September 15, 2006, the Airport Authority opened an extension to the terminal’s East Hall; this included a 419,790 sq ft (39,000m²) expansion to the SkyMart shopping mall.
A second 1,506,950 sq ft (140,000m²) terminal was opened on February 28, 2007, and is located opposite the original one (on the other side of the high-speed railway line). Terminal 2 is only used as a check-in and processing facility for departing passengers. The building has neither gates of its own nor arrival facilities – instead passengers use the gates in Terminal 1 to board their flights. So far the majority of low-cost carriers and some full-service airlines have relocated their check-in desks to T2.
Later in 2007, work started on a new two-storey North Satellite Concourse (NSC) and this was completed in December 2009. Designed for narrow-body aircraft and equipped with ten jet bridges, the 2,153,780 sq ft (200,000m²) concourse has the capacity to handle five million passengers annually, with a shuttle bus service operating between NSC and Terminal 1 every four minutes. The airport’s owners have been quoted as saying that they have invested an average of more than HK$2 billion a year on expanding capacity and enhancing facilities, and have added ten new cargo stands, the HKIA Air Traffic Control Tower and the Airport World Trade Centre. On the western end of the man-made island and adjacent to the airport is the Sky City complex which consists of the Sky Plaza – an office, retail, business complex – the Asia-World Expo exhibition centre, a nine-hole golf course and the SkyPier cross-border ferry terminal.
The importance of Hong Kong as a regional and global freight and logistics hub cannot be underestimated, with HKIA playing a significant role in its success. In August 2004 DHL opened its Central Asia Hub here, a dedicated, purpose-built HK$100 million (US$12.8m) air express cargo facility. The 18,200 sq ft (1,690m²) building is capable of handing up to 440 tonnes of air express cargo per day. In March 2008, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong awarded Cathay Pacific Services Ltd a franchise to invest in, design, construct and operate a new air cargo terminal at HKIA. A 20-year franchise agreement was signed by both parties for common use of the new development. Cathay Pacific is investing HK$4.8 billion (US$616m) in the new 2,647,920 sq ft (246,000m²) terminal at the airport to Cathay Pacific Services Limited. The facility was originally due to be opened in 2011 but its completion has been deferred by up to 24 months to mid-2013 due to the global economic slowdown that hit the air cargo sector during 2009/2010. The carrier says the facility will have an annual capacity of around 2.6 million tonnes and will increase the airport’s total general cargo capacity to 7.4 million tonnes per annum.
At the end of January 2011, the Airport Authority of Hong Kong unveiled the first phase of its HK$57 billion (US$7.3bn) midfield development project. Work is due to start in the third quarter of 2011 and should be completed by the end of 2015 and will comprise a new 20-gate passenger concourse that will be five storeys high and have a floor area of 785,791 sq ft (73,000m²). There will also be 20 aircraft stands, eleven of which will be equipped with airbridges (some Airbus A380 capable). It will be connected to Terminal 1 by an automated people mover. The configuration of the concourse will be similar to that at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Once completed there will still be enough land available to build further concourses when passenger demand increases. In June 2011 the Authority released its latest forecast for the facility’s development over the next 20 years, called the Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030. The study took three years to prepare and nine consulting organisations were hired to carry out the research, observation, planning and to give advice. The plan’s main focus is to improve the airport’s overall capability to handle the anticipated growth in passenger demand over the next two decades. Two plans have emerged and both have now been released for public consultation:
Option One – The two-runway system.
While retaining the current two runways, additional enhancements will be made to both the terminal and apron facilities to increase overall capacity. This would enable the airport to handle a maximum of 420,000 flight movements per year, with annual passenger and cargo throughput increased to 74 million and 6 million tonnes respectively. The cost would be HK$23.4 billion (US$3.1 billion) at today’s currency rates. It is anticipated that this expansion would increase the number of direct jobs at HKIA to 101,000 by 2030. However, countering this option, the Airport Authority estimates that the current two runways will reach their maximum capacity sometime around 2020, and that a third runway will become vital if HKIA is to retain its prominent position in the region.
Option Two – The three-runway system.
This plan focuses on the construction of a third runway to the north of Chek Lap Kok, which would involve reclaiming another 1,806 acres (650ha) of land from the South China Sea. The associated facilities – additional terminals, airfield and apron facilities would be built accordingly and combined with the new runway. Under this option the airport would be able to increase the maximum number of flights to 620,000 per year, or an average of 102 flights per hour, and meet the forecasted annual passenger numbers of around 97 million per annum and cargo tonnage of 8.9 million by 2030. This option is expected to generate even more jobs, possibly 141,000 by 2030 but is estimated to cost HK$86.2 billion (US$11.1 billion) at 2011 prices.
Whichever option is chosen one thing is certain, without the investment in its future HKIA will not be able to keep pace with the expanding market in the Asia-Pacific region. Although Hong Kong was affected by the recent economic recession it didn’t suffer as badly as others and its resilience has helped it rebound very quickly. The region’s airlines are spearheading the aviation industry’s strong recovery, with 2010 passenger and cargo traffic figures returning to their pre-recession levels.
With air traffic predicted to grow to 11.7 trillion Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK) by 2028, up from 5 trillion in 2008, the industry will require more structured plans to enable it to handle such extraordinary increases in demand. Development schemes, such as the Hong Kong International Airport Master Plan 2030, are fundamental to ensuring airport infrastructure keeps pace and that the airport continues to provide its customers with the most up-to-date amenities.