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[Editorial] Airport politics

Ruling party pushes project to build airport on a Busan island ahead of by-election

A government panel’s decision on a state project to expand Gimhae International Airport into an air travel hub in the country’s southeast is unconvincing and contradictory.

The panel said Tuesday that the new, larger Gimhae International Airport will have no problems in serving as a gateway airport for the southeastern provinces in light of capacity but that the project requires a fundamental review, meaning it will effectively be scrapped.

It gave a lame excuse for the need for the fundamental review. The panel saw few flight dangers from nearby mountains if the airport were to be expanded, then found fault with an issue on an administrative technicality. It said the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport should consult the relevant local government (Busan) on issues related to the mountains but that the ministry has not consulted it yet. Therefore, it said, the project requires a fundamental review. This conclusion is absurd.

The panel should also have taken concerns over excessive investment seriously. It forecast the new Gimhae airport to be capable of processing up to 38 million passengers a year, with well over 29.2 million people expected to use the airport in 2056. This capacity is more than enough, considering a steady population decrease.

The decision to expand the existing airport in Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province was finalized after a yearlong feasibility study conducted by ADPi, a French company specializing in airport architecture and engineering, four years ago. At that time, the Gimhae airport plan beat other options overwhelmingly. It stood out particularly in economic efficiency. The plan was estimated to cost 4.16 trillion won ($3.74 billion), but the other two alternatives of building an airport in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, and on Gadeokdo, an island under the jurisdiction of Busan, were expected to cost 5.82 trillion won and 10.2 trillion won, respectively. Gadeokdo was also regarded the least fit for the construction of an airport because of its soft ground that would require costly landfill.

However, the panel said that it was not in a position to say about the issue of economic efficiency. If it conducted a cost-benefit analysis, it may have reached a different decision.

It is an open secret that a number of provincial airports were built as pork-barrel projects despite a scarcity of demand. Now, some of them sustain chronic losses. Last year, 10 provincial airports posted a combined loss of 88.7 billion won. Yecheon Airport in North Gyeongsang Province was shut down in 2004 due to the shortage of demand. The construction of Uljin Airport was suspended when it was 85 percent completed, after the Board of Audit and Inspection ordered the review of the project.

The review panel under the Prime Minister’s Office, not to mention the Transport Ministry, is said to have regarded the Gimhae airport expansion plan as rational but changed its position under stubborn pressure from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

Busan residents are said to want a new airport to be built on Gadeoko, an island in their city. The panel’s decision was a formality to scrap the existing plan and build an airport on Gadeokdo as the voters want ahead of the Busan mayoral by-election in April next year.

If the new Gimhae International Airport project requires a fundamental review, the process to select a hub airport site of Gyeongsang provinces must start over again. But the party is rapidly pushing a project to build an airport on Gadeokdo.

The DP demands inclusion of expenditures on a contract to research the validity of a Gadeokdo airport in next year’s government budget.

Even before the panel announced its decision, 17 DP lawmakers called a press conference to express their support for the construction of a new airport on Gadeokdo. They said they will legislate a special bill within this year to advance the opening of the Gadeokdo airport.

If a national project is easily overturned this way, people will suffer from the irrational change of policy.

The presidential election will be held in 2022, and the general election in 2024. More absurd things than the Gadeok airport project may happen.