Two top local government leaders in the southwestern region are fighting over which of the two major airports in the area ― Muan International Airport of South Jeolla Province or Gwangju Airport ― will serve as the destination for domestic air connections. The latter had been expected to close after the two-year-old Muan International had become more established.
However, Gwangju Mayor Park Gwang-tae made it clear Monday that he intends to keep Gwangju Airport open and add international routes to several Chinese destinations, despite strong opposition from South Jeolla Province.
In an effort to stimulate the underutilized Muan International Airport, South Jeolla Gov. Park Jun-young has been seeking the operation of domestic routes flying to and from Gwangju Airport, which runs routes to Gunsan, Daegu, Gimhae, Seoul, Yeosu, Ulsan, Pohang and other major Korean cities.
“From the industry’s point of view, it is necessary to keep domestic lines at Gwangju Airport,” Mayor Park Gwang-tae said at a press conference in Gwangju. “We will also seek permission to allow the operation of international routes to Beijing and Shanghai.”
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South Jeolla Province released a statement Sunday, urging the cooperation of the central government, Gwangju City and the Korea Airport Corporation in the transfer of domestic lines to Muan International Airport.
“The Muan International Airport is and should be the main airport serving the southwestern region. It is the result of a state project initiated on the condition that the existing airports in Gwangju and Mokpo give up their domestic operations,” the statement said.
Perhaps some sort of compromise will be made; over the summer there was talk of splitting duty:
The Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs and the Korea Airports Corporation are finally ready to solve the problem of local "ghost airports." They decided to take action only after the Board of Audit and Inspection released the results of an audit of the white elephants Wednesday.
The watchdog told the ministry and KAC to suspend operation of Yangyang Airport in Gangwon Province until they come up with a plan to make the most of it; consider merging Muan Airport in South Jeolla Province with Gwangju Airport; and reexamine projects to expand Ulsan Airport and renovate facilities at Sacheon Airport, both in South Gyeongsang Province.
The Muan International Airport opened in November, 2007, several years behind schedule, and was to replace the airports in Mokpo and Gwangju. When it did open, it was "incomplete," with some staggering deficiencies considering the airport was nearly a decade in the making; from a Korea Times article:
However, for the time being only nine international flights per week by two Chinese carriers and seven domestic flights will operate, as the two national flag carriers _ Korean Air and Asiana Airlines _ decided to keep their operation of four weekly flights to China at Gwangju airport until next June.
The decision was made due to the ministry's inconsistent policy. The construction of a highway connecting Gwangju and Muan has not been completed and thus the difficulty in accessing the airport was evident, consequently the government allowed international operation at Gwangju airport until the end of constructions in June.
With only half of the international flights operating in Muan and the other half at Gwangju, customs and immigration facilities and cargo terminals at Muan are also unlikely to be fully operational. Moreover, the airport lacks restaurants and convenience stores as no companies have applied to do business there due to the small number of flight operations.
Muan International Airport is one of South Korea's "ghost airports"---big, new airports that nobody uses---and is handling roughly 3% of its forecast capacity. I see there have only been 53,211 passengers arriving at and departing from Muan this year (36,019 international), and running a search for flights on the official website I see the only international flight listed is to Beijing (twice a week). Muan is thus the country's second-least-busiest international airport, behind the one in Cheongju, and has handled the fewest number of passengers on domestic flights. For domestic flights this year, Gwangju has handled 1,137,549 passengers, compared to Muan's 17,192. Last year Muan handled 104,213 passengers on international flights, and in less than two months in 2007 it handled 11,326.
The BBC looked at Yangyang's airport in May, and mentioned that, even though 11 of Korea's 14 airports don't turn a profit, there are a few others on the way. Here's an article about some bickering over an airport to open near Busan.
Namak-ri, Muan county became the capital of Jeollanam-do in 2005, taking over for Gwangju. They're building a new city in Namak (남악신도시), one that is planned to have a population of 150,000 when it's finished in 2019 (Samhak-myeon, in which Namak is located, had a population of 8,768 in 2001). I suspect many of those people will simply be relocated from Gwangju and nearby Mokpo. Having all the flights out of Muan, though, will mean some of the area's biggest cities---Gwangju, Jeonju, Yeosu, Suncheon---will be without an international airport. But if they were ambitious enough to simply build a new city rather than relocate to a preexisting one or retrofitting Gwangju, then I guess building a new airport is no big thing.
There is even talk of enlarging the airport in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, to handle international flights to fit in with a huge regional development project:
The absence of an international airport in North Jeolla Province is hindering foreign investment in the reclaimed Saemangeum area, the world’s biggest landfill, which is to be developed as a major industrial and tourism center by 2020.
Recently, U.S. developer Federal Development scrapped a plan to build a multi-tourism complex on the province’s signature island of Gogunsan, citing a lack of international flight access.
The cancellation was a major setback for North Jeolla, commonly known as “Jeonbuk.” Attracting foreign investors and tourists to the region is crucial, particularly for the success of the 2015 completion of the Saemangeum-Gunsan Free Economic Zone (SGFEZ).
Korea designated the Saemangeum and Gunsan area as its sixth and final free economic zone in May 2005 to make full and strategic use of the Saemangeum reclamation, and fulfill the backward province’s long aspirations for a national project that would secure balanced development for the region through automobile, shipbuilding and machinery industries, and tourism.
“As one can see, the most glaring impediment to the globalization of Saemangeum is the airport issue. Who has ever heard of a global business center without an international airport,” Vice Governor Song Wan-yong said Friday.
“If the project is to reach its full potential, foreigners should be able to visit the area through direct flights.”
The remarks came during a tour of the area arranged by the provincial administration for the press and the advisory committee of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs.
North Jeolla, often considered one of Korea’s most underdeveloped regions, is in the only province in the country without an international airport.