By Flor Wang CNA Staff writer
Kaohsiung International Airport may already be Taiwan's second-biggest airport, but it is now hoping for a bigger slice of Taiwan's aviation pie.
Pitching Kaohsiung's location, the local government and lawmakers have begun a campaign to turn the airport into a cash cow that can bring more investment and business to the port city.
The campaign's timing coincides with the accession to power in May of a new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration at the central government level and its "new southbound" policy aimed at building closer ties with Southeast Asian countries.
Of the airport's over 700 weekly flights, 500 are to destinations in Southeast Asia and another 162 serve destinations in China, and the city thinks it is well-positioned for more.
DPP lawmaker Lai Jui-lung (賴瑞隆), who represents the district where the airport is located, asked the central government on July 2 to come up with measures to encourage airlines to operate more flights out of Kaohsiung.
He also demanded the Transportation Ministry to issue a report on the utilization of the Kaohsiung airport in a month.
"Our goal is to have the Kaohsiung airport share the burden of the international airport in Taoyuan as quickly as possible and create a win-win situation for both sides," Lai said.
On June 16, Kaohsiung Secretary-General Yang Ming-chou (楊明洲) suggested during a Cabinet meeting that the Transportation Ministry actively assess the possibility of relocating more international flights from Taoyuan to Kaohsiung.
"The recent flight disruptions at the Taoyuan airport resulting from floods reflected a long-standing problem. The high concentration of flights at the airport has made it hard to manage so many passengers," he said at that time.
Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in northern Taiwan is by far the country's biggest international gateway. It handled 38.47 million passengers last year, up 7.4 percent from 2014 and more than the 32 million it was original designed for.
It is currently undertaking projects to increase its capacity dramatically, but as with Lai, Yang thinks some of the Taoyuan flights should be diverted away to other airports.
"Southern Taiwan needs more flights to help bring in more tourists and create business opportunities," Yang contended, arguing that bringing flights to Kaohsiung would help strike a balance in the development between the northern and southern regions.
Although the Kaohsiung airport has also seen growth in passenger arrivals and departures in recent years, there is room for it to process more passengers.
According to Kaohsiung International Airport Deputy Director Fu Yao-nan (傅耀南), the airport handled 4.86 million passengers flying international routes in 2015, still some way off its designed capacity of 6.09 million.
So Kaohsiung welcomes more flights bound for Southeast Asian countries to originate from the local airport, Fu said.
But while Lai, Yang and Fu are appealing for more traffic and hoping to draw more visitors from Southeast Asian countries to the city, they may simply be engaging in wishful thinking.
Industry sources question whether airlines would be willing to cooperate with a shift in flights from Taoyuan to Kaohsiung because of questions over operating costs and market demand.
Behind the need to expand the airport's facilities, the core problem facing the Kaohsiung airport is a lack of passengers, they said, noting that if there is demand, airlines will take steps on their own to add more flights through the city.
Overall demand for international travel in Kaohsiung has been rising, with the growth in passengers on international routes averaging 14.1 percent at the airport from 2012 to 2015.
But the load factors of inbound and outbound international flights in Kaohsiung have been 5-6 percent lower over that time than flights served by the Taoyuan airport.
Would airlines move flights south if they paid a price in more empty seats?
Another problem, according to Fu, is that the Kaoshiung airport is already too busy during the peak hours of 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Fu said that if flights were diverted from Taoyuan to Kaohsiung, they would have to operate at off-peak times, something analysts said airlines will not accept because of cost concerns and low market demand.
The airport's operations are also constrained by a decades-old curfew that bans aircraft landings and takeoffs from midnight to 6:30 a.m.
Kaohsiung-based tourism operators have tried hard over the past decades to have the curfew removed, but local residents have never budged from their stance on the issue.
"We prefer to have a good dream rather than taking feedback from businesses," a local resident said.