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Page last updated at 23:08 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 00:08 UK

South Korea's abandoned airports

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

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The BBC's John Sudworth went to visit South Korea's Yangyang airport

Yangyang International is an airport looking for a reason to exist. Built on South Korea's east coast just seven years ago, you won't find any delays or long queues here. In fact, you won't find any passengers at all.

The initial vision could not have been more different.

Up to three million people a year were meant to throng the gleaming floors of the departure and arrival halls, built at a cost of almost $400m (£260m).

But last year an average of just 26 passengers a day came through the doors, vastly outnumbered by the 146 airport staff on hand to serve them.

In November the last commercial flight took off, and the terminal became what the Korean national press has dubbed a "ghost airport", an impressive monument to overestimated demand.

But it is not an isolated example.

Empty spaces

In fact, if there was to be an award for the world's quietest international airports, South Korea would surely be one of the favourites.

Choi In-wook, South Korea
Politicians, in order to gain votes, promise their constituents an airport
Choi In-wook
Korean Citizens Action Network

At the other end of the country from Yangyang, way down in the south-west, is the even newer Muan International Airport.

It opened less than two years ago, and although a handful of flights do at least land there, the terminal is struggling.

Built amidst the surrounding onion fields, it looks an unlikely spot for a thriving airport, and the scene inside is, once again, one of empty check-in desks and empty spaces.

Figures for last year show passenger levels at less than 3% of capacity.

"It might be better if it was used a bit more," said one passenger I spoke to, part of a group of Korean tourists preparing to catch one of only two flights leaving that day.

"But having said that," she added, "it is nice to come to an airport that isn't busy for a change."

Vanishing demand

As elsewhere, the project was meant to be a boost for the local economy, bringing in visitors, and connecting the local economy with the wider world.

Map

But the region's farmers and fishermen may now wonder if it was a worthwhile investment.

South Korea has a total of 14 regional airports. Figures show that 11 of them lost money last year.

What should have been the 15th, another new east-coast airport, already more than 80% complete, has been suspended because of lack of demand.

And there is currently an ongoing debate about the wisdom of the plans to build yet one more, somewhere near the southern port city of Busan.

One reason for the lack of demand for air travel may be the simultaneous development of a high-speed rail link that now whisks travellers from one end of the country to the other in less than three hours, as well as the construction of a network of new motorways.

'Political logic'

Local airports have been built by "political rather than market logic", according to one newspaper.

The Korean Citizens' Action Network, an organisation that monitors government spending, claims that hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on terminals and runways that simply are not needed.

Yangyang International Airport, South Korea
Yanyang airport was built at a cost of almost $400m

"Politicians, in order to gain votes, promise their constituents an airport," said spokesman Choi In-wook.

"Rather than checking the need thoroughly, the feasibility studies can be distorted to support the projects, and as a result there is an oversupply of airports in this country."

Could not the case be made, though, that some of today's under-used airports may turn out to have a long-term future?

"Maybe," he said. "If they honestly forecast that there would be large, initial losses for a long-term strategic benefit, then fair enough. But from the beginning the feasibility reports are inaccurate, so no one knows the true prospects."

Both the government and the Korea Airports Corporation, the body that manages the regional airports, refused the BBC's request for an interview.

There are those, like the staff at Yangyang airport, who do indeed believe that they may still find a profitable future for their terminal.

But it is the views of the passengers that really matter - and for now, they are voting with their feet.



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