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Kai Tak Isn't Going Away Any Time Soon
December 15, 1983 -- While some recent upheavals in the Hong Kong economy may be temporary, diplomatic brinkmanship between Great Britain and China has chalked up one casualty that seems permanent: Plans for a much-needed replacement for aging and overworked Kai Tak Airport appear to be dead.

The local Hong Kong government's scheme to build a new two-runway airport at a cost of US$1 billion was officially abandoned earlier this year. Discouraged planners at the colony's Civil Aviation Department are now proposing a less expensive and admittedly makeshift alternative: still another refurbishing of the 25-year-old Kai Tak. The US$30 million revamp will substantially increase the size of Kai Tak's passenger terminal and stretch the capacity of the airport's lone runway. But the renovation won't be complete until 1987 and can't extend Kai's life beyond the end of the decade.

A plainspoken assessment of the knotty situation is offered by Ronald Li, influential chairman of Hong Kong's largest stock exchange.

"Why should we build a new airport just to give it away? You cannot blame the government for canceling the plan," he fumes. "How would they be able to raise a billion dollars in capital to build something that they will have to turn over to China in 1997?"

Hong Kong's current political insecurity and economic malaise have little to do with the colony's commercial aviation realities, however. After a decade of manageable growth, Kai Tak's passenger traffic, cargo loads and airline movements are booming. Hong Kong's 30 scheduled and 20 nonscheduled carriers are expected to handle about 9 million passengers in 1983, a 20 percent increase over 1982. Kai Tak's lone runway (above) will have about 53,000 airline movements in 1984--and an astonishing 80 percent of that traffic is likely to be widebodv aircraft.

"We're worried about getting caught by the growth," admits Peter Bodiley, the Civil Aviation Department's chief planning officer. "The expansion of Kai Tak will get us to 1990 pretty comfortably. After that, I'm afraid, things are likely to get rather sticky."

The replacement airport, first proposed a decade ago, was supposed to ensure that things didn't get sticky. Since almost all of the usable land in the mountainous, 404-square-mile colony has long since been developed, the new airport would have been built on landfill. The plan called for demolition of a small island called Chek Lap Kok. The landfill from that project would then be used to reclaim an area off the northwest coast of Lantau, a large but sparsely populated island west of Hong Kong Island.

The two-runway airport built on the landfill would have been approximately twice the size of the 215-hectare Kai Tak complex. The plan also included construction of an infrastructure for Lantau and a series of new roads and bridges to connect the airport to Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula, the most heavily populated parts of the colony.

The proposal languished for five years due to reservations about the technical feasibility of the landfill operation and the aeronautical advisability of departure routes. A 1978 study confirmed both the viability of and the need for the new airport, but active consideration of the project continued to be delayed.

By the time Kai Tak's sharply increased traffic patterns made consideration of the new airport crucial, the project's cost estimates had ballooned above the US$1 billion mark. Then the economy collapsed last year in the wake of the "1997 issue"--Hong Kong is due to revert to Chinese control when Britain's lease on the colony expires in 1997--and funding disappeared. In March, Hong Kong's financial secretary publicly announced that the replacement airport project had been shelved.

The Kai Tak renovation project, proposed several months later, calls for a 50 percent expansion of the airport's passenger terminal. According to the plans of the aviation department, the refurbished terminal will accommodate 60 check-in stations as well as substantially larger waiting areas. Runway capacity will be maximized with more aprons and other peripheral improvements.

A more drastic renovation or expansion of Kai Tak isn't physically possible, however, because of the airport's central-city location. While it sits on the southern edge of the Kowloon Peninsula, it is surrounded on the other three sides by modern high-rise buildings. Already a difficult airport for pilots to maneuver, approach and departure restrictions make building additional runways unrealistic.

"Even if it were possible, there's no point in building a second runway," says Bodiley, the planning chief. "We looked into it, but because of traffic control problems, a second runway wouldn't actually increase our ability to handle more aircraft. What we're having to do is squeeze the very last drop of capacity out of Kai Tak."

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

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