The government on Wednesday announced that it will scrap plans to build a new airport in the south, sparking a fierce backlash from local residents, authorities and lawmakers.
But Korea already has far too many unprofitable airports. Besides Incheon International Airport there are 14 regional airports, or almost one for each of the 16 major cities and provinces. In the U.S., whose land mass is 98 times larger than Korea's, air traffic is an efficient mode of transport, and as a result there are around 400 regional airports there. But in terms of area alone there are 3.4 times more airports in Korea.
Only three of the 14 -- Gimpo, Gimhae and Jeju -- are not posting losses, and the remaining 11 are hemorrhaging money, with combined losses of W50.7 billion (US$1=W1,105).
"With a chronic shortage of passengers, no amount of clever plans can narrow losses significantly," said a Korea Airports Corporation staffer. Only 1,560 passengers use the 11 money-losing airports on average each day -- just one-sixth of the average of 9,700 people who use the bus stop in front of the Guro Digital Complex.
The worst on that score was Yangyang International Airport, which saw no more than 24 passengers per day last year and a total of 134 flights a year, or one every three days. But that is an improvement from 2009, when there were no flights at all. Cheongju Airport, which has recently been bustling with increasing passengers, also posted a W5.1 billion loss last year.
With the KTX bullet train linking Busan and Gwangju, the number of passengers using regional airports is expected to fall even further. The Korea Transport Institute predicts passenger numbers at Gwangju and Muan airports will plunge 64.5 percent, at Ulsan Airport 60.7 percent and at Yeosu Airport 47.1 percent.
Uljin Airport, which cost W120 billion to build, now has no passenger traffic and has been turned into a test flight facility. The W300-billion Muan Airport caused conflicts with nearby Gwangju Airport and handles only 274 passengers a day, a paltry 2 percent usage rate.
The planned Gimje Airport was never built because a study showed it to be economically unfeasible, resulting in a waste of W48 billion in initial business expenses.
Japan has experienced a similar problem. It built no fewer than 98 regional airports due to flawed feasibility studies and pork-barrel politics, and around 90 of them suffer chronic losses. Japan Air Lines fell into financial trouble and eventually folded after being forced by local politicians to expand flights to unprofitable regional routes.