Shenzhen's airport handled 45 million passengers in 2018 and is now in the middle of a massive expansion program. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority is now grappling with labor shortage as well as a looming undersupply of marine sand from the mainland after the city reached a consensus to create a third runway out to sea north of the existing airport island.

While the city pushes the project to help it continue its high-flying expansion race against other key hubs, the neighboring mainland tech boomtown of Shenzhen has also embarked on an ambitious plan to poach passengers and cargo from Hong Kong. It has projects including a third runway and a fourth terminal building to double its capacity to handle no less than 80 million passengers and 2.6 million tonnes of cargo by 2030.

The reclamation of a 3,600-meter new runway and its supporting apron got the green light from China’s National Development and Reform Commission earlier this year, and bulldozers and sand barges were soon at work creating new chunks of land along the east bank of the Pearl River estuary. The new runway, with a price tag of 9.35 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion), will be tailor-made for jumbo jets such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747.

The interior of Terminal 3 of Shenzhen’s airport. Photos: Asia Times
An overview of Shenzhen Airport’s new terminal building. Photo: Handout

The city’s new runway will run parallel to a busy expressway bridge linking the city to Guangzhou, where reclamation and construction mustn’t disrupt airport operations as well as nearby road and maritime traffic. The new runway is expected to be up and running within four years according to local media, with the help of contracts with sand suppliers in Guangdong and Guangxi, while Hong Kong is likely to miss its 2023 completion target for its facility.

Shenzhen’s airport already has two runways and three passenger halls, including a 450,000-square-meter futuristic Terminal 3 featuring a massive cobweb of honeycomb-shaped ceiling panels and floor-wiping robots. In 2018, the 45 million passengers that passed through its boarding gates, up 8.2% from a year ago, put it in fifth spot of mainland China’s busiest airports, and 32nd globally, ahead of London’s Gatwick, New York’s Newark and Sydney’s airport. Hong Kong handled 74.5 million passengers during the same period.

Shenzhen’s ascendence as a transit hub for mainland tourists heading for Hong Kong and Macau as well as a new gateway serving the affluent Pearl River Delta has seen airlines and couriers add more routes. For instance, cheaper fares on direct services to Southeast Asia and Europe are luring passengers away from Hong Kong where a landing slot crunch is pushing up prices, and Shenzhen also serves as a key transhipment for UPS’ freighters.

An overview of Shenzhen’s Baoan International Airport, which currently has two runways and a 450,000-square-meter terminal building.
The Hong Kong International Airport is also building its third runway. Photos: Google Maps

While marine sand is in tight supply as Hong Kong and Shenzhen rev up construction of their runways, airspace above the two hubs is also becoming more congested.

The two neighboring cities are now locked in a rivalry for space since future planes taking off or landing at the new runways could be on a collision course if the lack of airspace is not addressed.

Conflict over routes and airspace is yet to be ironed out by a task force formed by officials from Hong Kong, Shenzhen and China’s Civil Aviation Administration, which was set up to delineate airspace under a sharing arrangement.

Hong Kong papers report that Shenzhen is determined not to yield too much as the rise of the city as a whole has made  cadres more confident to supplant Hong Kong on key fronts like aviation.

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