A government report released this week has rekindled controversy over the feasibility of a project to build a new international airport in the southeastern part of the country.
The report said passenger traffic at Gimhae International Airport near the southeastern port city of Busan would hit its maximum capacity within a decade. The number of passengers using the airport, which stood at 9.67 million last year, was projected to rise by an average 4.7 percent annually from 2015 to reach 16.68 million by 2023, making it difficult for the existing facilities to effectively handle the traffic.
Releasing the report based on studies by two separate institutes, the Transportation Ministry announced a plan to conduct a feasibility study on constructing a new hub airport.
Metropolitan and provincial governments in the region have regarded the announcement as a green light, gearing up to compete to host the planned airport.
Though commissioned to outside organizations, the report’s predictions represented a sharp turnabout from the conclusion made by the ministry three years ago that the existing airport would be capable of dealing with increasing passenger traffic by 2027. The judgment was cited as a major reason for the 2011 decision to discard the new airport plan, which was estimated to cost up to 15 trillion won ($14.7 billion), ending a fierce competition that divided residents in the region over its location.
Transportation Ministry officials said the emergence of low cost carriers in recent years had fueled a boom in air travel through Gimhae Airport. But the suspicion still appears to linger that political consideration or pressure may have been behind their change in stance.
In previous elections, the issue of building a new airport has been repeatedly raised to draw support from regional voters. Former President Lee Myung-bak pledged to push for the plan during his 2007 campaign only to abandon it after taking office. His successor and incumbent President Park Geun-hye revived the project in the 2012 election.
It is necessary to exclude any political calculation from the process of the renewed feasibility study. An accurate and thorough analysis should be made in terms of economic benefits. An approach free of political influence is also needed to prevent the recurrence of excessive competition between municipal and provincial governments.
Building a new airport may not be the only option. As many experts note, it could be more efficient and reasonable to expand and upgrade facilities at the existing airport.