New lease of life for Taipei's airport

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 April, 2011, 12:00am


Taipei's 'in-town airport' was once almost thrown out of town.

Criticism of the airport and growing support for investment in a high-speed rail network almost led to the downtown Songshan International Airport being demolished to make way for a riverside park. The 60-year-old airport was seen by critics as a useless throwback which the larger Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport -an hour's drive from the capital- had effectively replaced in 1979.

The argument for the closure of the old airport gained momentum after the launch of Taiwan's high-speed rail in 2007 and the closure of Taiwan-based airline Far Eastern Air Transport a year later that left the in-town Songshan International Airport's waiting halls virtually empty.

But now Songshan is suddenly on a steep ascent towards revival.

Since 2008, aviation officials in Taiwan and on the mainland have opened 144 direct round-trip flights per week from the airport to 11 cities in nearby south China, particularly the popular Hongqiao airport 80 minutes away in Shanghai where hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese do business.

A total of 370 direct flights have been approved since political relations began to thaw in 2008.

Before that year, most mainland-bound passengers from Taiwan made costly, time-consuming stopovers in Hong Kong or Macau.

Direct flights quadrupled passenger volume in 2008 alone.

In October, Songshan opened 56 weekly round-trip flights to central Tokyo's Haneda terminal, sparing the inconvenience of landing at the out-of-the-way Narita International Airport. That number has been cut in half since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, but is expected to pick up again as business returns to normal in Tokyo.

Taiwanese officials are talking to Seoul's in-town Gimpo International Airport as they position Songshan as an East Asian hub for business.

'Today's policy won't allow for any demolition. The president has earmarked Songshan as an airport for development,' said Ni Chen-shih, the airport's deputy director.

'Because of limits on the facilities, we can't offer as many flights as Taoyuan, but we can specialise in capital-to-capital flights.'

All Taipei-based domestic routes also use Songshan, though the high-speed railway has cut local air traffic. Far Eastern, which grounded 10 planes at Songshan, said it would resume flights on April 18 with two round trips per day to the outlying islands of Quemoy.

Songshan's position on an important Taipei subway line, several public bus routes, and between two densely populated neighbourhoods made it popular with passengers again as the number of flights rose.

Business travellers say they can meet a partner for coffee in Taipei, get to an afternoon meeting in Shanghai and return to dinner in Taipei.

Taiwanese investors have poured an estimated U$100 billion-plus into the mainland.

'You can save so much time, and this is especially convenient for executives in the services industry, such as in finance and media, with business in Taipei where their headquarters may be located,' said Samuel Kuo, president of a Taiwanese business association on the mainland and a furniture company chairman who has flown the Songshan-Hongqiao route. 'They can make it back for dinner and may need to.'

Airlines are scrambling to grow at Songshan. 'It's conveniently close to the city centre, saving passengers a lot of time, so Songshan's contribution to our business is pretty significant,' said Hamilton Liu, spokesman for China Airlines, the biggest Taiwan-based carrier.

China Airlines and Taiwan's No2 carrier EVA Airways both fly from Songshan to Tokyo and Shanghai. China Airlines has taken about 41,000 passengers overseas from Songshan since June and seeks to expand.

But airlines also grumble about the space constraints at the 1.82 square kilometre airport as the number of international flights grows.

Songshan's runway cannot accommodate larger aircraft such as Boeing 747s. Flights in a particular time slot may overwhelm the six international boarding gates.

Airport staff must also work around a massive NT$990 million (HK$265 million) remodelling project due to end in October.

Once the project is done, officials say, the quaint airport, first built for the military under Japanese rule, will be ready for today's flights and any future growth. It expects 3.38 million passengers per year once the upgrades are done.

EVA publicist Katherine Ko said Songshan was certainly advantageous. 'An in-town airport should add convenience,' she said.

Songshan's renewal should become an engine for Taiwan's economic growth, said Wai Ho Leong, regional economist with Barclays Capital in Singapore.

Mainland group tours, allowed into Taiwan for the past two years, can spend more time sightseeing if they start from Songshan compared with Taoyuan, he said, and business people active on the mainland will spend more time on the island.

'The airport is another factor enhancing Taiwan's value.'