First mentioned in 2015, and with a Framework Agreement signed the following year, the "Greater Bay Area" is the Chinese Government’s ambitious scheme to link into an integrated economic and business hub the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and 6 other cities in Guangdong Province around Southern China’s Pearl River Delta.

The Greater Bay Area plan (apparently devised, planned and driven by the Chinese President Xi Jinping) plays a significant strategic role in the overall economic development of China. Its aim is to create a centre for innovation and economic growth through the flow of people, goods, capital and information, to rival the Bay Areas of San Francisco, New York and Tokyo.

While there appears to be no doubting the Chinese political will to progress this project, it faces considerable challenges nonetheless, including the differing tax regimes, currencies, and legal and political systems which exist across Hong Kong, Macau and the other Guangdong cities.

On 18 February 2019, an Outline Development Plan for the Greater Bay Area was published, comprising eleven chapters. As far as aviation is concerned, the objectives are as follows:

  • To consolidate and enhance Hong Kong’s status as an international aviation hub, raise the competiveness of Guangzhou and Shenzhen airports as international hubs, strengthen the functions of airports such as those in Macau and Zhuhai, and pursue differential development and positive interaction of airports in the Greater Bay Area.
  • To support the construction of Hong Kong Airport’s third runway, as well as the reconstruction and expansion of Macau’s airport, commence a preliminary study for the construction of a new airport in Guangzhou, and study the development of a batch of feeder airports and general aviation airports.
  • To further expand the Greater Bay Area’s domestic and international aviation networks, and proactively take forward inter-modal code sharing service.
  • To leverage Hong Kong’s strengths in financial and logistics services, and develop high value-added freight, aircraft leasing and aviation financing services.
  • To support Macau airport in developing regional business aircraft services.
  • To strengthen airspace coordination and air traffic management collaboration, optimise airspace structure, enhance the efficiency of the utilisation of airspace resources, and enhance air traffic management capacity.
  • To deepen management reform in low-altitude airspace, expedite the development of general aviation, steadily develop cross-boundary helicopter services, and set up general aviation demonstration zones in Shenzhen and Zhuhai.
  • To proceed with the setting up of airport economy zones in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Three months prior to the publication of the Outline Development Plan, and in support of the Chinese Government’s vision for a Greater Bay Area, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) and the Guangdong Provincial Government signed a Strategic Agreement on 5 November 2018 to accelerate construction of a group of world-class airports in the Greater Bay Area. The impact on Hong Kong will largely depend on whether the emphasis is on cooperation (as is proposed) or whether, in reality, competitive pressures and regional rivalries prevail. Unsurprisingly, that Strategic Agreement was consistent with the subsequent Outline Development Plan. It stated that:

  • The CAAC will proactively support and help Guangdong to formulate a development plan for a world-class airport group in the Greater Bay Area, in a bid to build, in conjunction with Hong Kong and Macau, an integrated airport cluster characterised by shared resources and coordinated development.
  • The layout and structure of the airspace for both civil and military airports in the Pearl River Delta region will be adjusted, in order to optimise it.
  • Attention will be focused on enhancing the competitiveness of Guangzhou and Shenzhen airports as international aviation hubs. In particular, the infrastructure of Guangzhou airport will be improved, and efforts will be made to actively expand the route networks at both airports in order to build internationally competitive transfer hubs.
  • Efforts will be made to further deepen civil aviation cooperation between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau. This includes cooperation in airport operation, management and facilities; logistics; aircraft maintenance; and general aviation.
  • Strong support for the development of general aviation industry in Guangdong. This includes setting aside areas for general aviation in the newly built, reconstructed and expanded hub and feeder airports; establishing fixed base operators at selected airports; developing plans to establish general aviation airports in Guangzhou, Foshan, Dongguan, Jiangmen, Zhaoqing and other cities; and accelerating the construction of an aviation industry park in Zhuhai.

Much of the Outline Development Plan is vague, although the aim is to have a framework in place by 2022 for the development objectives. What is clear, however, is that if the Greater Bay Area vision is to be realised, there has to be a very significant degree of cooperation, coordination and connectivity between Hong Kong, Macau and the 9 other cities.

The scale and potential impact of the Greater Bay Area is hard to ignore, not least due to the estimated future passenger traffic and volume of freight. Currently consisting of around 70 million people, one forecast by HSBC expects the region’s current gross domestic product of US$1.5 trillion to nearly double to US$2.8 trillion by 2025 (making it the 9th largest economy in the world). In 2017, airports in the Greater Bay Area handled 202 million passengers, with that figure forecast to grow by nearly 85% to 371 million passengers by 2030.

Given the anticipated regional growth, Hong Kong International Airport is endeavouring to preserve its position as a leading international hub, by encouraging intermodal ticketing and upstream check-in, where passengers check in for their flight in the Greater Bay Area, before boarding a ferry or taking a coach to the airport in Hong Kong. These intermodal arrangements were boosted by a Memorandum of Understanding signed on 19 February 2019 between Hong Kong and the CAAC, which expanded the existing airline code-share arrangements for land and sea transport between the Chinese Mainland and Hong Kong. Hong Kong Airport is also aiming to tap into the substantial e-commerce development around the Greater Bay Area, with intermodal cargo facilities for transshipments both by air-sea (via the Pearl River Delta) and air-road (via the newly opened Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge).

As part of the regional cooperation, the work of the Pearl River Delta Region Air Traffic Management Planning and Implementation Tripartite Working Group has also continued. It comprises the CAAC, Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Macau. The main aim of that Working Group is to optimise airspace and air traffic management in the Greater Bay Area given the number of major airports in the region. In particular, it aims to reduce flight delays along the east coast of China, which have historically been bad owing to military aviation activities (as the large majority of China’s airspace is controlled by the military). The position is however improving, in part due to the recent opening of an additional flight route between Hong Kong and Shanghai. Recent figures for 2018 showed that more than two thirds of flights departed on time from Hong Kong to Shanghai, compared with less than half of those flights doing so the previous year.