Until recently, the nation had 19 airports in operation. But the government had to close four of them during the 2002-07 period because they did not handle enough flights. Only a few others are faring any better than those four. But they are somehow in operation, wasting tens of billions of won in taxpayers’ money each year.
A case in point is Muan international airport that opened in South Jeolla Province in 2007. Last year, the Board of Audit and Inspection found that a mere 1.3 percent of its capacity was being used. As a stopgap measure, the state auditor recommended that it take over commercial flights from nearby Gwangju airport, which is doubling as an air force base.
Based on its review of the management of the 15 airports in operation, the state auditor also suggested that one hemorrhaging airport in Gangwon Province be shut down until after a rescue plan was put in place. But few are convinced it would ever open again.
Losses from the operation of those and other regional airports were snowballing. Exceptions were Gimhae and Jeju airports. These findings by the state auditor were testimony that construction of many of the regional airports had been pork barrel. Still worse, no drastic improvement in their management is likely in the future, with the network of high-speed railroads set to expand services.
This grim reality, however, serves as no deterrence for lawmakers promoting the construction of a new airport in the southeastern province. They apparently believe nothing is better than the construction of an airport when it comes to ingratiating their local constituents ahead of the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The idea of building a new international airport in South Gyeongsang Province was hatched when it was determined several years ago that Gimhae international airport, as a gateway for Busan, was operating near full capacity. The proposal was to build a new airport at a cost of 10 trillion won by 2025 so that it would be able to handle up to 10 million international passengers each year. As a presidential candidate, Lee Myung-bak committed himself to its construction.
But the idea proved to have little feasibility. A 2009 study by the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements reportedly found that an airport constructed in either of the two candidate sites would not be viable. But the administration has since kept the outcome of the feasibility study confidential, postponing a final decision.
The administration should have scrapped the plan at the time. But instead of doing so, it later commissioned another feasibility study, whose outcome it says is due by the end of this month. But no one should be blamed if they wonder aloud if the final outcome is intended to back up the administration’s pre-made decision.
When the administration is dragging its feet, the two rival groups of lawmakers, each from the constituency desiring to play host to the proposed airport and others nearby, are throwing invectives against each other. At the same time, they are pressing all the buttons to exert influence on the administration to make a decision in their favor.
The conflict over where to build a new airport is dividing the ruling Grand National Party, with which almost all rival lawmakers are affiliated. The party’s leadership is concerned about the possibility of a decision, made in one way or the other, splitting the regional vote to the advantage of the opposition in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012.
All these political implications aside, the administration is well-advised to consider expanding Gimhae airport as a viable alternative. Quite a few experts, including university professors, are already supporting the new proposal.