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Ministry hints at Gimhae airport alternative

Decision on new international airport to be unveiled Wednesday, Busan, Miryang also in the running


The government is poised to decide Wednesday whether a new international airport will be built in Busan or Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province.

Yet it is still uncertain whether the Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs will choose between the two cities or select an alternative, such as expanding the existing Gimhae International Airport, as the decision will probably influence the general election next year.

Korea has been planning to invest more than 10 trillion won ($8.6 billion) to establish another major hub airport in the Southeastern part of the nation, home to around 13 million people, by 2025, following Incheon International Airport.

The new airport is ultimately aimed to replace Gimhae airport, which is projected to be saturated in around 10 years, with its annual passenger volume surpassing 20 million due to the soaring number of Chinese travelers and budget air carriers.

Competition has been heating up between Gadeok Island near Busan and Miryang to attract the new airport as the facility is expected to fuel the regional economy significantly.

When complete, the airport is expected to supply around 200,000 jobs, the production of 17 trillion won and wages of 3 trillion won, according to the ministry.

The proposal for the new airport was initially posed by the municipalities of South Gyeongsang Province to the former Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2006, which later became President Lee Myung-bak’s major pledge during the 2008 presidential election.

However, due to flaring controversies over the matter and lawmakers in related constituencies competing fiercely, the decision has been delayed by almost five years.

Busan, the nation’s biggest port city, has been promoting its locational advantage as a logistics center, having Busan New Port and Busan-Jinhae Free Economic Zone.

The city also said as the airport would be built on an island, it would be free from noise and obstacles such as mountains.

Miryang, on the other hand, has been stressing the city’s accessibility from other cities in the region ― being around an hour’s-drive and bullet train-ride from them. Its officials have also been saying that the airport’s construction in the city would lead to balanced national growth.

Prior to the final decision, the government has carried out inspections of both Busan and Miryang, sending a committee consisting of ministry officials and experts to the venues on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

The land ministry said it allocated the three standards ― economic feasibility, management, social and environment aspects ― 40 percent, 30 percent and 30 percent gravity.

However, there is also a possibility that the ministry will call off the whole airport construction plan and choose an alternative, the ministry said.

“Should neither of the two venues turn out to be profitable, the new airport plan will likely be cancelled as it is a 10 trillion won-project,” a ministry official said.

“In a case where both the cities score less than 50 (out of 100) we will look for an alternative such as expanding the Gimhae airport.”

The ministry assessed that enlarging Gimhae airport option would cost around 4 trillion won.

Meanwhile, some industry experts have been raising doubts on the feasibility and necessity of the airport, calling for a more thorough review.

They pointed out that pre-inspection research by Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements in 2009 showed that both Gadeok Island and Miryang proposals lack profitability.

The two cities’ benefit/cost index were 0.7 and 0.73, respectively, and a figure under 1.0 means it lacks profitability, they added.

Experts also say that the government should reconsider the demand for the facility in light of the new bullet train network, and that other airports in the region are already suffering from small passenger number.

By Koh Young-aah (youngaah@heraldcorp.com)
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