By Kim Rahn
The government announced Wednesday it had scrapped a controversial plan to build a new airport in the nation’s southeastern region, drawing huge protests from residents there and the politicians who represent them.
It said neither of the candidates met the requirements for commercial viability.
Residents in the proposed sites of Miryang in South Gyeongsang Province and Gadeok Island near Busan threatened to hold protests and demonstrations against the Lee Myung-bak government.
The special panel set up to review the airport project said the two candidates failed to meet the minimum score of 50 out of 100 points in the assessment of three categories — management, economic efficiency and environmental impact.
“Miryang scored 39.9 and Gadeok Island, 38.3. In both cases environmental damage would be inevitable due to topographical conditions; the construction costs would be too large; and few economic benefits are expected,” said Park Chang-ho, a Seoul National University professor and head of the panel.
In economic efficiency, which was the most important factor, Miryang scored 12.2 out of 40 and Gadeok, 12.5.
“I’m sorry for not giving good news to Gyeongsang residents, but I hope they will understand our decision that conditions to build a new airport are not ripe,” he said.
After the announcement, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said in a statement that the government will not build an airport in the region.
Kim said it will seek measures to efficiently cope with Gyeongsang region’s air demand by improving existing airports to expand international network.
“We learned again that a state project should undergo a thorough review in economic feasibility from the beginning of planning, as well as obtain national consensus,” Kim said.
On expansion of air traffic capacity at the existing Gimhae International Airport, Construction, Transportation and Maritime Affairs Minister Chung Jong-hwan said a separate study was needed before any decision is made.
Residents and heads of local authorities in the Gyeongsang region expressed disappointment and even anger, denouncing the government.
Busan Mayor Hur Nam-sik said the city cannot accept the decision. “Gadeok is the only candidate where 24-hour operation is available, and it is deplorable that the government threw out the plan for incomprehensible reasons. We’ll seek our own way to relocate Gimhae Airport to Gadeok,” Hur said.
Businesspeople in Busan say they will make efforts to attract private or foreign capital for a new airport.
“We’ll hold massive rallies against the government, which ridiculed the public, and will not follow government policies,” said a head of a civic coalition promoting Gadeok.
Miryang Mayor Um Yong-su tendered his resignation, saying the government had made the city a laughingstock.
Civic groups in Miryang also said they will stage anti-government demonstrations, alleging the administration presented a doubtful conclusion with no objective and scientific basis. “We’ll set up a research center to examine airport construction and launch fundraising campaigns to build an airport in Miryang,” a civic group leader said.
A leader of an alliance of four city and provincial councils in the region said, “We demanded the construction for the nation’s balanced development. Neglecting the demand is destroying Gyeongsang people’s right to live.”
Adequacy needs to be reviewed
Regarding the row over a new airport, an air traffic expert said the government needs to discuss the issue from the beginning, as the necessity to build a new international airport there has been exaggerated.
“Gimhae Airport’s passenger capacity is 17.8 million per year. About 8 million people used the airport last year, less than half the capacity. Both Miryang and Gadeok claim the number of users will reach 22 million in 2025, but state research institutes have already deduced that there will only be some 15 million users in 2030,” Korea Aerospace University professor Yang Han-mo said.
“Even though passenger demand for international flights will reach 11 million in 2025 from the current 5 million as those people claim, that for domestic flights will largely drop. Domestic flight demands at airports in Gyeongsang regions have already decreased after the new KTX line opened between Daegu and Busan last November,” he added.
On the claim that the nation needs another major airport besides Incheon International Airport, Yang said it is not government policy but passenger and cargo demands that make an airport a hub.
“Incheon airport had 32 million passengers last year. The demand for international flights in Korea is small, compared with 60-70 million at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and Heathrow Airport in London. Such airports lag behind Incheon in facilities and services, but a huge number of airlines operate there because of demand,” he said.
He went on to say that the numbers of routes and weekly operations are main considerations when a passenger decides which airport to use. “If Korea’s small demand is divided into two — Incheon and a new one in southeast region — the number of routes and operations will also be divided, and consequently neither of them will be a hub.”