Hong Kong may have lost its competitive edge over the Pearl River Delta in terms of manufacturing and shipping, but it still holds its leading role as an international aviation hub.
Over the past several decades, the delta's lower costs have hollowed out Hong Kong's role as a manufacturing centre, and earlier this year Shenzhen overtook Hong Kong as the world's third-busiest container port.
In contrast, as a sign of Hong Kong's continuing competitiveness as an international air travel hub, millions of mainland travellers use Chek Lap Kok airport as a transit point to or from international destinations because airports in the Pearl River Delta do not have as many international flights. Nearly 10 million mainland passengers used Hong Kong airport in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, accounting for 21 per cent of the 46.9 million passengers that year, said a Hong Kong Airport Authority spokesman. "The multimodal transport services of Hong Kong International Airport are rising in popularity among Pearl River Delta travellers," the spokesman said. "Fuelled by the booming economy of the Pearl River Delta, we expect air traffic demand in the region will continue to grow. Hong Kong International Airport's traffic will also rise."
Guangzhou and Shenzhen airports offer more mainland connections, but Hong Kong beats them in international connections. Hong Kong has air links to 110 international and 40 mainland destinations, according to the Hong Kong Airport Authority. In comparison, Shenzhen International Airport offers flights to more than 90 mainland cities and, according to the airport's website, has traffic rights with 37 countries. About 30 international destinations are actually served, although about half of those are for freight services only. As of the end of last year, Guangzhou Baiyun Airport offered 143 mainland and 54 international flight routes, according to the airport's 2009 annual report.
The Hong Kong Airport Authority was seeking to increase land and sea links between the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong airport, said Alaina Shum, general manager of the authority. "We offer land and sea intermodal transport to the Pearl River Delta."
In July, the authority revamped its system of limousines and coaches connecting Hong Kong airport with the Pearl River Delta, increasing the frequency of services, Shum said at a recent South China transport infrastructure conference in Shenzhen.
Last year, 1.3 million passengers travelled between the delta and Hong Kong airport in limousines and coaches; the number was 900,000 in the first seven months of this year and was predicted to rise to 1.5 million for the whole of this year, Shum said.
Hong Kong airport offered 460 daily coach trips connecting 115 destinations in the Pearl River Delta, as well as 260 limousines offering cross-border transport services, said the authority's spokesman.
The authority was looking to increase the number of ferry trips from the SkyPier marine terminal at Chek Lap Kok airport, which opened in January, Shum said.
SkyPier offers 107 ferry rides per day to eight ports in the Pearl River Delta. The daily average passenger number on these ferries was between 6,000 and 7,000, but on peak days the daily passenger number reached 10,000, she said. Last month, SkyPier achieved a monthly high of 227,000 passengers, up 33 per cent from a year ago, while Hong Kong airport's cross-border coaches and limousines served 163,000 passengers, a yearly increase of 41 per cent and also a new record, said the authority spokesperson.
Within a 140-kilometre radius, there are five major airports in the Pearl River Delta - Hong Kong, Macau, Zhuhai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou - which were under the separate sovereign jurisdictions of the British, Portuguese and Chinese governments when they were built, said Colman Ng, assistant director-general of the Hong Kong Civil Aviation Department.
"We did fight, but we did have discussions as to who controls what and takes which piece of airspace. Fortunately, we are now under the same country, China. That's why we managed to have discussions," Ng said at the Shenzhen conference.
Since last year, Hong Kong airport and other airports in the Pearl River Delta had set up a working group to meet regularly to improve co-ordination of airspace over the delta and improve flight procedures.
"We have been doing very well in the past. How are we going to sustain our competitive edge? This is where we will work hard, to increase traffic capacity. We have a plan to increase runway and airspace capacity to improve our competitiveness as a major international aviation hub," he said.
If Hong Kong airport decided to build a third runway, its air traffic could rise to 102 aircraft movements per hour in 2020 from 59 at present, Ng said. A third runway would take 10 years to build at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, he added.