Opening airports to foreign investors may harm Vietnam security, experts warn

By Nguyen Nga - Mai Vong, Thanh Nien News

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Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi. File photo Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi. File photo


After some early optimism, the transport ministry’s plan to sell airport operating rights to interested investors has become a cause for concern as a vital question starts to arise: who should be allowed to buy these rights?
Some experts insist that local businesses are the better choice since aviation is strongly related to national security. 
Others claim that Vietnamese investors do not have enough expertise and experience to do the job.
The opinions were voiced right after the ministry announced that it is considering transferring to private investors the rights to operate some terminals at major airports in order to attract more funds into the aviation sector.
The airports include Noi Bai in Hanoi, Cam Ranh in the central province of Khanh Hoa and Da Nang. 
Under the tentative plan, the sole airport on the southern resort island of Phu Quoc can be even put up for sale as a whole. 
Economist Pham Chi Lan said the government should not offer airport operating rights to foreign investors, warning that they are likely to transfer the rights to others, which might put national security at risk. 
“If we give airport terminals to local investors, we will still be able to control them better. This is a matter of national security, not just mere business,” she said.
But a director of a US investment fund said allowing foreign players to join the sector would not necessarily affect security. 
He suggested Vietnam open terminals to foreign investors or investment funds because local businesses do not have adequate expertise in aviation.
Foreign investors will help manage airport infrastructure, while the government can hire local organizations for security matters, according to the director, who asked not to be named.
State control
Experts said since aviation is vital to national security, the government needs to maintain at least some of its control over airports, even after privatization. 
Economist Bui Kien Thanh pointed out that most of Vietnamese airports serve both military and civil flights so it is impossible to let private investors take over a whole terminal. 
The rights to operate certain services can be sold, but not all, and the government needs to make sure consumers are not hurt by monopolistic competition, Thanh said. 
Luong Hoai Nam, CEO of Hai Au Aviation, a seaplane service operator, said the government should retain its stake at major airports in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang, but not more than 49 percent.
He expressed his support for the plan, saying that it will legally pave the way for the mobilization of private and foreign funds in the development of airport infrastructure. 
Vietnam, in fact, is behind most of regional countries when it comes to airport investment and operation, Nam said
Cambodia and Laos, for instance, have already transferred the operating rights of their biggest airports to a French investor, he added.

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