[OUTLOOK]Time to use Gimpo Airport wiselyWith the opening of the Incheon International Airport, 70 percent of Gimpo Airport’s facilities have become idle. Commercial facilities unrelated to airport service, such as big discount markets, movie theaters and wedding halls, fill the empty spaces instead. Although this desperate measure to make a profit is understandable on the part of the airport, is it the best option of usage of our national facilities?
On top of all the problems, the government is planning to use Gimpo Airport as the takeoff and landing point for the presidential plane and for VIP guests of the government instead of Seoul Airport, the air force base located in Seongnam. This would mean Gimpo Airport will further lose its function as a commercial airport.
The new government is opening many government facilities, such as the presidential country house, to the public in an attempt to stress its non-authoritarian image. But an airport is different. Economics, instead of politics, should come first in allocating the role of airports.
The facilities and personnel at Gimpo Airport should be fortified so that they can supplement and serve as substitutes fo Incheon International Airport. In recent years, Gimpo Airport had acted as a substitute for Incheon International whenever Incheon was hit by severe weather conditions. The transference of the international terminal to Incheon Airport, however, left Gimpo inadequate to meet the overflow of detouring airplanes, and passengers complained of the delay in entry procedures. This surely did not leave a favorable first impression of Korea on foreigners. We need to earnestly consider expanding the facilities of Gimpo Airport and stationing customs and immigration personnel permanently at the airport so that it can find its proper function again.
Gimpo Airport could also be used as a transit port connecting overseas cities and other cities of Korea. Foreign analysts have diagnosed that the cargo transportation speed of Korean airports is slower than Singapore airport. The analysts’ advice was to strengthen our transit function if we wanted to beat rivals such as Shanghai and Hong Kong to become the distribution center of Northeast Asia.
While it is equally important to improve our harbors in Incheon and Pyeongtaek as transit points aimed at China, it makes just as much sense to study ways to use Gimpo Airport wisely.
Gimpo Airport has easy access to downtown Seoul, making it a favorable location for air transportation of urgent cargo. To look for another solution while burying alive this distribution transit function of Gimpo Airport will be like going around the mountain when there is a highway that runs through the mountain.
Gimpo Airport also has the potential to handle the demand for domestic flights that will increase in the future. Recently, the Ministry of Construction and Transportation announced a plan to increase the number of “mini-airports” across the country for light aircraft. The ministry claimed this will help meet the demand of air flights in places with little or no transportation infrastructure and to buffer the drop in demand for domestic flights with the opening of a high-speed railway.
It is a desirable policy to materialize the vision of becoming the distribution center of Northeast Asia. The intricate network of small airports linking the country will not only save transportation costs but also help attract tourists and foreign investors.
In order for these mini-airports to create a real demand and maintain proper management, a link with Seoul will be most important. If these mini-airports are connected to the Incheon Airport, located farther away from Seoul than Gimpo Airport, many people might prefer just driving or using the high-speed trains. This, of course, would make it hard for the mini-airports to succeed.
An efficient selection of location for a distribution center is based on the standpoint of the demand-side. Multinational businesses with global networks prefer downtown Seoul and the southwest coast for their headquarters because of the easy access to airports. The augmentation of Gimpo Airport and the appropriate division of roles between Gimpo and Incheon International Airport, the link between the international business regions and the international airports will be fortified. A suggestion for the division of roles between Gimpo and Incheon will be to let Gimpo Airport handle the cargo from and to regions within two-hours flight distance, such as Tokyo and Shanghai, and for Incheon International Airport to handle longer distance cargo.
There are three airports serving New York City. Kennedy Airport, La Guardia Airport and Newark Airport all have their respective functions and roles in serving the No. 1 city in the world. Whether we choose to become “distribution center” of Northeast Asia, like Amsterdam is in Europe, or strive to become the “financial center” of Northeast Asia, like New York or London, makes no difference. Airports are indispensable. In times when we should be expanding the function of our airports as transportation centers, we should not let commercial facilities and political reasons continue to smother the airport’s proper function.
It is time the government explore the efficient use of Gimpo Airport with our national goal to become the distribution center of Northeast Asia in mind and make a decision.
* The writer is the mayor of Seoul.
by Lee Myung-bak