Zhuhai airport will assume a key role in propelling Hong Kong’s growing aviation ambitions in the Greater Bay Area, the city’s leader has announced, with the Airport Authority (AAHK) expanding its stake in the 35th busiest aviation facility in mainland China.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Wednesday revealed the operator of Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) would inject more equity into the small mainland airport with the aim to build a “world-class aviation cluster” in the region.
During her policy address, Lam also unveiled schemes to improve cross-border connectivity, including land-to-air passenger transfers, while giving the green light to launch helicopter services from the city to other regions in the bay area.
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“By integrating the mainland aviation network of the Zhuhai airport with the international network of the HKIA, the competitive edge of the entire GBA in aviation [will be strengthened], thereby enabling Hong Kong’s aviation business to play a key dual role in the ‘dual circulation’ policy,” Lam said, referring to Beijing’s economic strategy of focusing on domestic demand over exports.
The deal boosts Hong Kong’s exposure to one of the world’s largest air travel markets, which has proven to be more resilient during the coronavirus pandemic.
AAHK owns a 55 per cent stake in the firm managing Zhuhai airport, which it has been helping run jointly with the Zhuhai municipal government since 2006. Situated on the west of the bay area, Zhuhai is one of the smaller airports in the region, focused on domestic Chinese air travel, and handled 12.3 million people last year.
It also has a 49 per cent stake in Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport which it jointly manages and a 35 per cent stake in Hangzhou airport – the eighth and 10th busiest mainland airports respectively in 2019.
A government source said investments into the Airport City Link, Hong Kong Cross-Boundary Crossing Facilities (HKBCF) and the retail-commercial Skycity development would allow the city to capture air passengers via Zhuhai airport flying to or from China’s third-tier cities such as Luoyang in Henan province or Guilin in Guangxi province.
The source said Zhuhai airport equity investment details would be announced by AAHK next week.
“As the Greater Bay Area grows in strength, I think it is a very good investment,” Allan Zeman, an AAHK board member and chair of its business development committee, told the Post. “With Cathay Dragon gone, we won’t have the benefit of flying to as many places in China as we would want to directly for now. Zhuhai enhances Hong Kong’s ability to spread its wings.”
The announcement will turn into reality years of expert calls to make Zhuhai the so-called “fourth runway” of Hong Kong once the city’s airport has completed its upgrade to a three-runway facility. In pre-pandemic times, the HKIA was so busy that Zhuhai was seen as a useful spillover airport for flights.
AAHK chairman Jack So Chak-kwong said in a statement the airport transformation initiatives would enable HKIA to pivot into the “double gateway” to the world and the Greater Bay Area, propelling the economic development of Hong Kong and the region.
Zhuhai airport is some 90km away from Hong Kong and is difficult to reach except by car. The distance between the two airports is farther than Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports, whose airlines rarely promote flight transfers between the two international hubs.
With rival carriers competing in the airports in Hong Kong and Zhuhai, the distance raised the question about the commercial viability of selling tickets among different airlines between the two facilities on top of lengthy transportation journeys.
But government sources were confident the move would lure passengers to and from the mainland into transferring via Zhuhai and Hong Kong’s airport.
AAHK is also set to develop about 3,000 automated car park spaces in the HKBCF which is accessible to visitors from Guangdong and Macau via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
Visitors will be able to park their cars at the HKBCF and transfer to the city airport without going through immigration clearance. The “park and fly” project is set to be operational by 2022. In the second phase of development starting in 2024, travellers will also be able to cross the city’s immigration borders to “park and shop” in Hong Kong.
Experts earlier urged the government to improve cross-border connectivity. The government announced it would work with Shenzhen to revamp its land-border crossings at the Lok Ma Chau/Huanggang control point and at Lo Wu at a later date. The plans include co-locating the control points on the mainland side to ensure a more seamless movement of people.
A transport link for self-driving shuttle buses that connects the HKBCF to Tung Chung town centre is also on the Airport City Link project blueprint.
However, a government source said the city’s current road ordinances needed to be amended to allow driverless cars to operate on Hong Kong roads.
Commercial helicopter flights between Hong Kong and other places within the Greater Bay Area would become a common feature, Lam said. China’s civil aviation regulator has approved preparation for cross-boundary commercial helicopter services. The service would cater to businessmen who need to shorten their travel time for meetings or factory visits across bay area cities.
A government source said talks to discuss a “one-stop solution” on immigration clearance for cross-border travellers by helicopter were only at the preparatory stage.
The city’s carriers – Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines – welcomed the announcements. Both the carriers are to benefit from improvements in land-to-air transit travel.
“The city has an unrivalled position as part of the Greater Bay Area, a region that presents a wonderful opportunity for Hong Kong, and will be the growth engine for the world economy over the coming decades,” said Augustus Tang Kin-wing, the chief executive officer of Cathay Pacific.
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