Experts question need for new regional airports

By Hung Le   January 28, 2021 | 07:00 pm PT
Experts question need for new regional airports
An aircraft at Vinh International Airport, 70 km from an area that Ha Tinh Province has proposed to build into another international airport. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Hai.
Some provinces want to build airports saying they would spur economic development, but experts have questioned their claim.

There is an airport race in the country, with many localities seeking to build them without sufficient socio-economic basis to justify spending such large sums of public money, Nguyen Thien Tong, former head of the aeronautical engineering faculty at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, told VnExpress International.

He cited the example of the central Quang Tri Province, which plans to build a military-civilian airport at a cost of VND8 trillion ($347.66 million) to handle one million passengers a year by 2030.

It would be the 9th in 14 localities in the central region. Quang Tri is at most 100 kilometers away from two airports, Phu Bai in neighboring Thua Thien Hue Province and Dong Hoi in Quang Binh Province, he said.

"If this airport is built, it is most likely that all three airports will have excess capacity. If the government invests instead in roads, it will be just a one-hour drive to either airport. So it is safe to say an airport is not strictly needed in Quang Tri," Tong said.

In recent years, many other provinces have asked to use military airports for civilian purposes or build new airports.

Last September, the central Ha Tinh Province had sought approval to build one and include it in the national airport master plan for 2021-30.

The northern province of Lao Cai asked to build a $246 million airport near Sapa Town, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, while Hanoi is readying an application for a second international airport.

According to airports operator Airports Corporation of Vietnam (ACV), the country now has 22 airports, 10 of them international.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam is drafting the master plan for 2021-30, which envisions having 26 airports, 14 of them international, down from a planned 28 as mandated by the government.

While this means only four more airports are planned until 2030, the northern Cao Bang and southern Bac Lieu provinces have also asked for airports to be added to the master plan.

The common refrain of provinces and cities is that airports would help overhaul the country's aviation infrastructure, which is now modest and overloaded in some places, and acts as a drag on socioeconomic development, especially tourism.

Besides helping Vietnam integrating into the global economy, the airports would also have a beneficial knock-on effect on other sectors, creating jobs and consumption, they said.

No economic efficiency

Tong said airports have been built without proper market research to assess the actual demand for air transport in the country.

He cited the CAAV as saying that in 2019 only around six of the country’s 22 airports were making profits, with the ACV having to cover the expenses of the others.

The Government Inspectorate had said in a report in 2018 that the low number of passengers is one of the reasons why these airports are not profitable.

"The only airports that are making profits are the ones that have been around for decades, such as Hanoi’s Noi Bai and HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat, while the rest are newly built and struggling to break even," Tong said.

Before approving new airports, the CAAV and the Ministry of Transport should carefully consider various criteria like population and distance between airports to ensure economic efficiency, he added.

"In the absence of demand, job creation and economic development will be limited, and investment in airports will result in a net socioeconomic loss. If localities want socioeconomic development, public funds can instead be used for highways, ports, education, healthcare, etc."

Ngo Viet Nam Son, an architect who participated in designing the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines, concurred, saying roads would be a far better option for spending public money.

They would not only serve domestic travel needs but also benefit national security, he said.

Tong added that ports and maritime transport allow greater movement of goods and would help capitalize on Vietnam’s advantage of having a long coastline.

Dr Nguyen Bach Tung, a former airport design researcher, said at best provinces could build small airports with short runways for aircraft with less than 20 seats to serve special needs such as medical airlift, defense and security and tourism.

Only 66 million passengers passed through the country's airports last year, a 43.5 percent decrease given the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis and unfavorable weather conditions.

Twenty-two airports across Vietnam accommodated 424,000 safe flights operated by 68 foreign and five Vietnamese carriers in 2020, down 548 flights from 2019, according to a report by the CAAV.

They also handled nearly 1.3 million tons of cargo, down 14.7 percent year-on-year.

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