75th Anniversary Snapshot: It’s déjà vu all over again in Hong Kong

The situation on the ground and in the air was becoming untenable. Tarmacs at the airport in Hong Kong were overcrowded. The capacity for both passengers and cargo were just a few years away from reaching design limits. The new air hub needed more infrastructure to access it, including high-speed rail and a new six-lane highway. Most importantly, the airport needed an extra runway to handle the expected increase in traffic over the next two decades.

These may sound like many of the arguments made today by proponents of the “third runway” project at Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), also known as Chek Lap Kok. But the above descriptions took place about a generation earlier, in 1990, when the city was still a British territory and the airport was a 65-year-old, single-runway operation tucked into the city of Kowloon. Chek Lap Kok, at the time, was a mostly uninhabited rock, and the reclaimed land of HKIA was still a pipe dream.

This November 1990 Air Cargo World article described the crowded space of the old Kai Tak Airport in strikingly similar tones as our coverage of near-capacity conditions at it’s successor, HKIA, which is already expanding again, 27 years later.

It the article excerpt above, published 27 years ago in Air Cargo World‘s November 1990 issue, author Tom Rosenthal described the tight spaces of the old airport, known as Kai Tak International, with its lone runway jutting out into Kowloon Bay. The small footprint of the airport, built in 1925, forced jumbo jets to take hard right turns on their final approach, passing within just a few hundred meters of the adjacent skyscrapers and giving passengers views that were equally exhilarating and terrifying.

The key driver for more elbow room was the predicted growth in air traffic as the century came to a close. At the time the article was written, the old Kai Tak facility was handling about 1 million tonnes of cargo per year. The plan for HKIA at the time was to create a facility that could manage about 4 million tonnes per year. In less than 30 years, HKIA is already past that mark; according to the 2016 figures from Airports Council International, HKIA topped 4.6 million tonnes in 2016. Already, it’s time to expand again.

There was also the matter of an unforgiving deadline: July 1, 1997. That was the date the Hong Kong territory would be officially placed under Chinese sovereignty (although it would still be considered a “Special Administrative Region”). Airport officials wanted to make sure the project was done before the new regime took over.

An artist’s rendering of what HKIA should look like after the completion of the third runway and new cargo terminal.

In the end, the builders came close: HKIA opened a year after the handover, in July 1998, but most of the work was already done. Less than 20 years later, however, talk began in earnest about “Master Plan 2030,” which would add a third runway by 2030 at a much higher cost than the entire HKIA project. While the 1997 version of HKIA cost an estimated US$4.5 billion (about $8.5 billion in today’s dollars), the expansion of the same artificial island under Master Plan 2030, which began last year, will require an investment estimated at $141.5 billion.

Looking back 27 years from now, how quaint will HKIA’s third-runway numbers seem to the next generation of Hong Kong cargo planners? Will they be dreaming of a fourth runway by then? Rest assured, you’ll be able to read about it all in the November 2044 edition of Air Cargo World.

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