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Happy landing Next month the brand new Chek Lap Kok airport opens in Hong Kong. Andrew Mylius reports on construction of one of the most challenging projects of the decade.

Landing among the skyscrapers crowding Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport must count as one of aviation's most exciting and frightening everyday experiences. However, on 6 July following an overnight changeover, passengers will touch down at a state of the art new airstrip on nearby Chek Lap Kok island.

The move from the city and seabound Kai Tak, which handles 29.5M passengers and 1.56Mt of cargo annually, to Chek Lap Kok will be a spectacular piece of logistical co-ordination. And in being so, it will fittingly conclude the programme of fast track planning and construction that has delivered the new airport from concept to finished facility in under nine years.

Hong Kong International Airport has exemplified flexible specialisation and just in time production. With an inflexible budget of HK$49.8bn (£3.89bn), it has been cost driven to a tight deadline. Meanwhile its 1,248ha area makes it nearly three times the size of the old airport. It has been a huge project not only in physical size and but in terms of design, labour, plant and materials, manufacture, distribution and construction.

Plans for relocating Hong Kong airport were first mooted in 1946. In the early 1970s growing air traffic called for more space and longer operating hours, and following a study concluded in 1975 Chek Lap Kok, just north of Lantau island, was identified as an alternative site. Further studies in 1978 and 1982 showed an airport would complement plans for a 1.4M person development on north Lantau and meet environmental criteria. After a period of dormancy during the economic downturn of the early to mid-1980s, the plan was revived in 1989.

The decision to build the airport launched a programme of parallel transport and infrastructural development. Chek Lap Kok offered economic benefits and faster projected build-operation time than alternative sites. A New Airport Masterplan by joint consultants Greiner-Maunsell was developed in 1990 at the same time as a new statutory body dedicated to the project, the Provisional Airport Authority was established.

Greiner Maunsell proposed dual runways aligned east-west to take account of prevailing winds. Between the strips they outlined a Y shaped terminal building, connecting to mainland road and rail links at its western end. The plan also outlined areas for commercial development - up to 40,000 jobs are expected to be created by the airport when it reaches maximum capacity.

The PAA took overall responsibility for planning, design, and construction of the new airport. Its total control of the project, established to ensure work stayed to budget and to time, has shaped the organisation of work and how it has proceeded. All jobs have been put out to competitive tender to obtain best price, and all work - whether consulting or construction - has been done by 'contractors'.

Consortia involved in both design and construction were required to be co-operative and well co-ordinated. Project director for the PAA, Douglas Oakervee says: 'To say there were no difficulties between the Authority and its contractors would be wrong, and with over 100 contracts in place it would be a miracle if there were no disagreement. The keys to bringing one of the world's largest projects in on time and within budget under what were unique and difficult circumstances were careful planning and programming, value engineering and strict cost control'.

Oakervee says the internationalism of the team that came together on the airport was a significant success, but 'equally important are short lines of communication and easy access to superiors'. All contractors had weekly meetings with the PAA, which, as client, took a direct hand in decision making. Director of Babtie BMT, Bob Watkins (ground lighting design with Harris & Sutherland Hong Kong and Gibb) says: 'The contract for design was very specific. I applaud the PAA on that. The client was part of the design process'.

In all areas the airport stretched the resources of those involved. The highest profile element, the terminal building (£1.33bn total value), is a good example of a complex, challenging design and construction project. There was considerable overlap between different phases of construction: work started on foundations for the terminal building while rock blasting to create the airport platform was still under way.

Responsible for design of the terminal building, Mott Consortium director Robin Whalley says that to meet the construction schedule it was necessary to award the first three construction contracts - for foundations (Gammon and Nishimatsu, for £36.3M), baggage handling system (Swier Engineering Services, Vanderlande Industries and Siemens, £51.7M), and advanced people mover (Sumitomo Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, £24.1M) - after only three months' design.

On the single largest contract awarded, construction of the £790M terminal structure itself a truly global contracting team was assembled in BCJ, an Amec/Balfour Beatty-led joint venture with China State Construction Engineering Corporation, and Kumagai Gumi and Maeda Corporation of Japan.

Oakervee says the intention originally had been to award the works in relatively large packages. Step by step funding meant that instead the project had to be broken down into building blocks. Although it has been a state funded project, the building of Hong Kong International airport has been a model of the pragmatic management and capital efficiency that flourishes in a hothouse free market climate.

It is forecast that after the airport goes operational, between 35M and 38M people will use it each year. Chek Lap Kok will handle 3Mt of cargo. Projected growth of traffic means expansion was designed into the Greiner-Maunsell masterplan in form of a second, X shaped terminal building.

The airport is already stimulating a local economic boom. And, unlike Kai Tak, for which there was never an adequate forward plan, the new airport is an integral part of a regional plan. As such it has been broadly welcomed, not least by those whose windows Jumbos have been flying past on Hong Kong island.

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