It must undoubtedly have been humiliating to President Lee Myung-bak to abandon one of his campaign promises ― building a new international airport. On the other hand, it was an act of courage, given that his administration did so at the risk of a voter revolt.
On Wednesday, the Lee administration scrapped a plan to construct an international airport in South Gyeongsang Province. A viable alternative could be to expand the nearby Gimhae airport, which is operating near full capacity. Experts say expansion would cost less than half the amount of money that would be needed for the construction of a new airport.
The decision was based on an evaluation that the big-ticket project, if completed as planned, would lose money heavily ― as almost all airports in the nation do. The exceptions are Incheon, Gimpo and Jeju, as well as Gimhae.
Nonetheless, provincial administrations are eager to play host to international or local airports. Losses are none of their concern, with the central government footing the bill, including construction costs and operating expenses. Politicians join hands with provincial administrations in pushing for airports because nothing will better ingratiate them with the voters.
Against this backdrop, Lee committed himself to the construction of an international airport in South Gyeongsang Province in 2007, whose cost estimates ranged from 7.9 trillion won to 9.8 trillion won. His campaign promise ignited a conflict between South Gyeongsang Province and Busan on one side, which wanted an airport on a southern island, and North Gyeongsang Province and Daegu on the other, which wanted one at a location near them.
A 2009 feasibility study by a state-funded research institute reportedly concluded that the 10-year project would be unprofitable. But the administration kept it confidential for reasons unknown to outsiders. Instead, it created an evaluation commission in July last year and commissioned it to conduct another feasibility study on the two candidate sites.
As an official statement by the commission was nearing, each side started to warn that its electorate would rise up in rebellion against the administration and the ruling party if it should lose out to the other. But both sides were dealt a blow when the commission announced on Wednesday that neither of the proposed sites was economically viable.
Is the controversy over the airport project now wrapped up? Hardly. Presidential aides say Lee is planning to address the nation with regard to his administration’s decision, apparently in an effort to put the fallout behind him. But all he needs to do is say he is sorry that he could not make good on his pledge, and nothing more.
Revolting against the decision is the Busan mayor, who says he will not be deterred in pushing for an island airport. Even more regrettable, some of the politicians affiliated with the opposition Democratic Party have not learned a lesson from the mistake Lee made.
Some of those planning to run in the 2012 parliamentary or presidential elections on the ticket of the Democratic Party are unashamedly attempting to exploit in their favor the regional sentiment souring against the ruling party. They say straight-facedly that they will make an election promise to construct a new international airport in South Gyeongsang Province.
Another farce involves politicians from South and North Jeolla Provinces. They are fighting against each other over the idea of permitting international flights to the northern Gunsan airport when the southern Muan international airport is losing billions of won a year.
But it is time to close many of the 11 unprofitable airports and cut their losses, instead of expanding their operations or opening new ones. Voters will have to get this message across to politicians when the next elections come around.