Asia news

E&T reports from south east Asia.

Airline forces action over trespassers

Filipino low-cost carrier Cebu Pacific Air has forced the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) and local authorities to implement safety measures at Catarman National Airport following several runway incursions involving people and vehicles. The airline temporarily suspended its Catarman services last month because of its concerns.

The carrier, which operates turbo prop ATR72-500 aircraft on the Manila-Catarman route, had to abort landings on four occasions.

At the time of the suspension, Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific's vice president for marketing and distribution, said: "No airline can operate under such hazardous conditions. Flights will only resume when we are sure the runway is clear and safe for our aircraft to land." She added that repeated complaints had been made to the authorities.

Dante Lulu, an official at the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) in Manila, told E&T that the authorities have a difficult time preventing the residents and vehicles from using the runway.

Lulu claimed that DOTC had installed fencing around the airport perimeter but it was torn down by the villagers, who found it convenient to use the runway to go to the town. As to why there was no concrete barrier separating the airport and the village, Lulu said the agency did not have the necessary funds.

According to Iyog, airport authorities have since blocked the entry points around the airport's perimeter fence used by residents and deployed additional security personnel to ensure the runway is kept clear at all times, making it safe for flights to resume.

However, DOTC has often blamed safety shortcomings on a lack of funds.

In December 2007 the US Federal Aviation Administration downgraded Philippines civil aviation safety from Category I to Category II, citing oversight issues in airline and airport operations. After a previous downgrading in 1995 it took the Philippines three years to convince the FAA that it could be restored to Category 1.

Korea plans new airport despite losses

The South Korean government is planning to build a new airport in the southern city of Busan even though most of the country's 15 airports are grossly under-used and losing money.

The move is being hotly debated within the government, with one faction questioning the wisdom of having another airport in Busan, which is already served by Gimhae International Airport. One camp centred on the Korea Airports Corp. (KAC), a government agency, has indicated that the airport will be built while the other, from the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime (MLTM) in Seoul, is against the proposal.

No date has been set for the start of construction, but E&T understands that it will begin in January with completion expected in August 2015. KAC refused a request for an interview.

The agency's move comes as a surprise, as nine of the 14 airports it operates are in the red due to low passenger traffic. With the exception of Cheongju Airport in North Chungchoung province, all handle less than one million passengers a year. Sokcho Airport was closed two years ago, as more people are opting for the high-speed train service.

KAC is not responsible for Incheon International Airport, serving Seoul, which is one of the busiest in Asia.

The government plans to privatise the loss-making airports in the hope that the private sector could turn red ink into black. Cheongju will be the first off the block as it has direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai

Jang Jong-sik, a director for air transport at MLTM, confirmed that the airports are losing money because of insufficient passenger traffic. "These airports are over-staffed and KAC will have to seriously consider reducing head-count as operating cost is very high," he noted.

Jang declined to comment on why several airports had been built when there was no potential for growth.

A case in point is Yangyang Airport in northeast Korea, which has the capacity for five million passengers a year but handled only 33,686 in 2007, an average of about 26 a day, outnumbered by the 146 airport staff on hand to serve them. Last year the number of passengers dropped to 9,500.

There are plans to downgrade the status of Yangyang Airport from international to domestic, as it does not handle any international flights - but in fact it has not handled any flights at all since last November, prompting calls for its closure. Taxpayers' money is being used to maintain the facility.

However, Jang said that it was KAC's responsibility to decide what should be done, and the Ministry would not interfere.

Yangyang, which cost US$400m to build, opened for operations in late 2002. It was at one time served by China Eastern Airlines to Shanghai and China Southern Airlines to Guangzhou.

Muan International Airport in southwest Korea is also looking for a reason to exist. Last year only 90,000 passengers used it against the backdrop of a 3.5 million handling capacity.

Construction started in November 1997, and the airport opened 10 years later, replacing the old Mokpo Airport. It is also slated to replace Gwanggju Airport. Muan is served by Korean Air to Shanghai, Asiana Airlines to Seoul and Beijing, and China Eastern to Shanghai and Changsha.

Construction of Uljin Airport in North Gyeongsang province is expected to be completed this month (June) but no date has been set for its opening, as none of the Korean carriers have plans to operate flights there.

The lack of demand for air travel has been attributed to new expressways and the development of the high-speed rail link. The high-speed train service, which was launched in April 2004, runs from Seoul in the North via Daejeon to Busan in the south-west and Mokpo in the south-east. It has already been responsible for the closure of the Mokpo and Sokcho Airports.

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