[SCMP Column] Crowded Skies Add to Woes for Airports

March 21, 2016

If you think Asia’s skies – and the airports that serve them – are crowded today, then hold onto your hats: they are set to become a whole lot more crowded, creating unprecedented challenges for most economies in the region as demand for airport facilities, aircraft, pilots and air traffic controllers soars into the uncharted stratosphere.

The trail begins with a single simple number: the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 5.6% annual growth in people who want to fly around Asia, either on business or for holidays, over the next two decades. That compares with a worldwide average of 4.9%.
From that simple number, some awesome insights cascade between now and 2030: the world’s airlines will need to add 32,000 new aircraft to the 21,000 already in service – 12,800 of them in Asia. Ask Boeing or Airbus and they will tell you that will cost around US$2 trillion. We will need to train around 560,000 new pilots – compared with the 450,000 flying aircraft around the world today. Half of these will need to be trained in Asia, with China needing almost 100,000 new pilots (compared with 40,000 pilots in service today), and the ASEAN economies needing around 56,000.

The strain on our airports will be immense. For most of the region’s economies, the China strategy of building more than 100 new airports is not an option, so most of this aviation growth is going to have to be handled through existing airports. The arithmetic is again awesome. Start with Hong Kong. Our 18-year-old airport has a formal capacity to handle 87m passengers. And we are currently struggling to get Legislators to agree funding to add a new third runway, to begin operating perhaps a decade from now, that will lift this capacity to 102m passengers. Yet from today’s 68m passengers a year, average passenger growth of 5.6% will lift the total trying to pass through the Hong Kong International Airport to 154m by 2030. If passenger demand is above the regional average – and that has been so for the past two decades – then the numbers will be even greater.

Of course, aircraft and passengers flying out of Hong Kong have to fly and land somewhere else – so there is not an airport in the region that is not wrestling with similarly challenging numbers. Beijing, which today handles 89m passengers a year – against a design capacity of 76m – will need to handle 190m by 2030. The new airport planned for Beijing, and due to be completed by 2019, will lift the city’s airport capacity to 148m, lagging far behind real passenger growth. In Jakarta, the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport struggles today to put 62m passengers a year through an airport designed to handle 38m. New facilities due to be in operation in 2022, will lift capacity to 62m - by which time passenger numbers will already have passed 85m.

There is not an airport in Asia that doesn’t echo the same story. The Vietnam government is wrestling with plans to build a new 100m-capacity airport in Ho Chi Minh City. But work will not begin on the airport until 2030, and it is not expected to open for business before 2050.

For leading airlines like Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines the biggest challenge will not be to win agreement at home to add capacity in home airports – though we know from painful local experience this is hard enough – but to persuade other governments around the region to take seriously the challenge of finding sufficient slots for their aircraft to land.

The scale of this challenge comes into perspective when we recall that the world’s busiest airport at present – Atlanta in the US – last year handled 101m passengers, followed by Beijing, Dubai, Chicago, Heathrow and Los Angeles which handled between 75m and 85m passengers. Yet on the current passenger growth trajectory, there will by 2030 be at least eight airports in Asia handling more than 110m passengers – Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Jakarta and Bangkok. This implies unprecedented passenger management challenges.

This reality raises the added challenge of managing air space in our increasingly busy skies, and training air traffic controllers who make sure the growing population of aircraft don’t bump into each other. This screams out for regional cooperation to build a coherent regional aviation infrastructure that can safely manage this growth, with cooperation not just to train air traffic controllers, but also to train pilots, air crew, and aircraft maintenance personnel.

Yet at the moment, each of our governments debates in its own little silo about management of the local challenges raised by rising demand for air travel. In Hong Kong, our Lilliputian Legislators squabble the pros and cons of a third runway without for a moment considering the larger regional challenge – where those who fail to build adequate capacity will undoubtedly find it channeled somewhere else – at a huge cost to the competitive positioning of our economy in the region. Hong Kong aviation authorities meet regularly with Mainland counterparts in efforts to improve air traffic management to and through the Mainland, but where is the evidence of either our own government or Beijing seeking to tackle this shared challenge in a regionally coherent and coordinated way?

In ASEAN a Single Aviation Market came into being at the beginning of last year, but there is as yet scant evidence of collaboration to tackle these shared challenges. Over the past decade air passenger traffic has tripled inside ASEAN, and the number of city pairs between which aircraft fly has risen by 40% to 1,500 city pairs. But where is evidence of enhanced collaboration to manage growth that will see passenger numbers triple again by 2030?

Ask air travelers from Europe or the US about their travel experiences in Asia today, and they will say reasonably uniformly that the Asian experience is more comfortable than is normal elsewhere in the world. If we don’t devote more regional attention to collaborating on our shared aviation infrastructure, that soon might no longer be true.
[ Back ]