Hong Kong Airport

A Hong Kong Airlines passenger plane taxies on the tarmac at Hong Kong Airport in this September 11, 2013. Associated Press

If Hong Kong builds it, will the flights come?

That’s the question many in the former British colony are asking about plans for a third airport runway that is set to be the city’s most expensive infrastructure project ever.

Hong Kong’s airport operator announced Tuesday the project — estimated to cost around HK$141.5 billion (US$18.2 billion) at today’s prices –has received final approval from the government. But some key issues still have yet to be ironed out, say opponents to the project.

At the top of the list: Airport Authority Hong Kong, the government-owned operator of Chek Lap Kok airport, has not addressed concerns over the possible low utilization of the new runway, given restrictions on the use of Chinese airspace and a lack of air-traffic coordination with neighboring airports in the Pearl River Delta.

The existing two runways at Chek Lop Kok are already under-utilized, critics of the project note. Though designed to handle more than 80 aircraft take-offs and landings per hour, they currently run at around 68, due to various factors including “limited use of airspace, ” according to government figures.

Much of mainland China’s airspace is controlled by the military. That means civilian flights are forced to share limited routes and altitudes, making severe delays commonplace in mainland China. Many flights from Hong Kong need to fly through Chinese airspace to destinations in China, Europe or North America. Compounding the problem is that Chinese airspace in the Pearl River Delta region is already extremely crowded, as Hong Kong’s airport is in the vicinity of airports in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau and Zhuhai.

The third runway adds to an infrastructure building-frenzy in the city. Other projects underway include a bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau and Zhuhai, a high-speed rail line to Guangdong province, an arts hub and multiple subway line extensions. The government has repeatedly raised cost estimates and pushed back completion dates for the projects, putting the blame on rising material costs and labor shortages, among other factors.

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