international status By Evelyn Kao CNA staff writer
Since a flash flood at Taoyuan International Airport disrupted services there in June, Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) has been pushing for the airport in his central city to be upgraded to an international airport, which he said will give travelers more options and will help balance regional development.
The central government has promised to assess the feasibility of Lin's proposal, while public discussions have heated up on the question of whether international flights should be diverted from Taoyuan to other airports in the country.
The issue came to the forefront after a series of recent problems at Taoyuan airport, including flooding, power outages and leakages of foul-smelling water.
In a bid to capitalize on the situation, the city governments in Taichung and Kaohsiung have been advocating that their Ching Chuan Kang Airport and Kaohsiung International Airport, respectively, absorb some of the international traffic.
Furthermore, Lin has argued, having an international airport in northern, central and southern Taiwan would be in line with the country's development trends.
He said Taichung, with its many industries and a population of 2.75 million, actually needs an international airport.
In addition, upgrading Taichung Ching Chuan Kang Airport to an international gateway would help ease the congestion at Taoyuan airport, Lin said, noting that Taiwan's airports serve nearly 50 million passengers a year.
He said his proposal was not driven by political expediency but rather was a well thought out strategy that would allow the northern, central and southern regions to complement each other and would help achieve balanced regional development.
The proposal is to upgrade the 1,800-hectare Taichung airport to an international gateway that will take some of the traffic that now goes to Taoyuan airport, which has reached the limits of its capacity, according to Lin.
His views were supported by Lee Ker-tsung (李克聰), a transportation technology and management expert, who said demand has outstripped supply at the 1,223-hectare Taoyuan airport.
If the Taoyuan Airport wants to maintain smooth and efficient operations of its terminals and runways, it should allow some of its flights to go to other airports, Lee said.
"With the large number of tourists that Taichung gets, it would be an ideal destination for low-cost airlines," he said.
However, Taichung airport would have to make several changes, including expanding its size and improving its facilities, if it is to be upgraded to an international gateway, Lee said.
Some Taichung City councilors also pointed to other issues that they said would require attention if an upgrade of Taichung Airport was approved.
City Councilor Chang Fen-yu (張芬郁) said that while she supported the proposal to bring more international flights to Taichung, the city's airport development may be constrained by factors such as inadequate airport apron space, narrow taxiways, and an existing restriction on flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. because of noise issues.
In his comments on the proposal, City Councilor Chiang Chao-kuo (江肇國) said better public transportation services would have to be provided between the airport and urban areas of the city, particularly in light of an apparent shift away from group tours to independent travel.
But Taichung Transportation Bureau Director-General Wang Yi-chuan (王義川) said issues like those are already being addressed.
As part of an effort to provide more convenient public transportation, the city government has developed a plan to build a 35.8-km mass rapid transit (MRT) system that would link Taichung's airport and seaport to urban areas of the city, Wang said.
The proposal for the NT$64 billion (US$2 billion) MRT project has been submitted to the central government's transportation ministry for review in 2017, he said.
The city is also working to improve its free airport shuttle service, which would allow large groups of tourists, particularly from Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and South Korea, to book shuttle services soon, Wang said.
Passenger traffic at the Taichung airport has grown significantly over the past few years, from 1.28 million in 2010 to 2.34 million in 2015, while aircraft traffic has increased from 16,503 in 2010 to 26,457 last year, according to Taichung Deputy Mayor Lin Ling-shan (林陵三).
He said the city government has set a goal of 10 million passengers per year after the planned expansion.
Last year, Ching Chuan Kang Airport added 11 new routes to its network, with the help of the city government, and currently serves 37 destinations worldwide, including 26 in China, according to Taichung Tourism and Travel Bureau Director Chen Sheng-shan (陳盛山).
He said that at present, the Taichung airport cannot handle heavier international passenger or cargo capacity as it has only 11 aprons and one runway, which accommodate both military and civilian air traffic.
However, there is room for terminal and runway expansion on the western side of the airport onto a sprawling 121.71 hectares of land, Ching said.
Taichung Airport officials are anticipating an increase in demand and are putting plans in place to handle heavier air traffic, whether or not the airport receives approval for upgrade to an international hub.
Taichung Airport Director Chang Jui-shu (張瑞澍) said construction of a second runway has started and is expected to be completed by the end of this year, while seven overnight parking bays will be built between 2017 and 2018.
As the city presses forward with its goals of expanding and upgrading its airport, City Councilor Chang Fen-yu (張芬郁) has warned that the most important step is to attract more tourists to ensure that the additional flights will be filled.