Plans for Vietnam's new southern airport criticized

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The country's history of expensive but ineffective, unnecessary investments scares those who say the current airport should be expanded instead

A plane seen from a residential area in Ho Chi Minh City as it descends to land at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Controversies have lingered over whether to expand the airport or build a new one some 40 kilometers away in Dong Nai Province. Photo by Doc Lap

Despite opposition from experts and local residents, Ho Chi Minh City mayor Le Hoang Quan still supports a costly plan to build a new airport in nearby Dong Nai Province instead of expanding the current Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

"Tan Son Nhat airport, which was planned in the French [colonial] time, has become too small to serve an average of 500 flights and between 60,000-100,000 passengers every day," he said at a meeting of the city's legislature last week.

"It's unsafe because planes depart and land near residential areas. This has to be rearranged," he said, adding that the central government was planning to build the new Long Thanh airport in Dong Nai as a solution.

Quan's support to Long Thanh airport project is the latest development in the lingering debate over the controversial idea that includes an October petition to the government from local residents opposing the project.

Many experts and residents have urged the government to halt the project, fearing high costs and inefficiency. They are asking why the government has approved a golf course currently under construction at Tan Son Nhat airport, instead of using the land to expand the airport.

In August 2011, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung approved the US$8 billion Long Thanh airport project on an area of 25,000 hectares (61,776 acres) in Dong Nai's Long Thanh District, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from HCMC.

The airport, designed with a capacity of 25 million annual passengers in 2020 and 50 million passengers by 2030, could be a major transit point in Southeast Asia, its advocates say.

Tan Son Nhat airport would then gradually serve only domestic flights. It opened in the 1930 when the French colonial government constructed an unpaved runway.

Currently, the airport is located on 800 hectares of its total 2,000 hectare area. The rest of the land is managed by the Ministry Defense.

According to the Ministry of Transport, the airport has served some 20 million passengers this year and the number of passengers is expected to increase to 25 million annually by 2020 before becoming overloaded.

"Expanding Tan Son Nhat airport will pollute the environment in the city center," deputy minister Pham Quy Tieu said in a recent report to the Prime Minister.

He said it would be unsafe to build a third runway at Tan Son Nhat because it is located near residential areas.

"Most other countries build major airports 15-60 km away from the city center with a maximum travel time of 40-50 minutes from downtown," he said.

According to the Tan Son Nhat Airport Authority, several foreign airlines have reduced their flights to Tan Son Nhat due to overcrowding.

Golf course for the rich or an airport for all?

However, aviation experts say Tan Son Nhat is not overloaded and that expanding the airport would cost less than building a new one.

Many residents are also frustrated that a golf course is being built on the adjacent public land, which they say should be used to expand the airport.

At a recent meeting of lawmakers and constituents, Nguyen Dang Diep, a resident in HCMC, asked why Vietnam keeps building so many golf courses. The country has 140 courses so far.

"It is very difficult to understand why they want to build a golf course in the airport," he said. "Golf courses are normally built in empty, non-urban areas."

Constituents from Tan Binh District and other areas near Tan Son Nhat signed a petition last October saying it is unsafe to build a golf course less than a kilometer from the airport's center.

The petition said residents were afraid that chemicals used on the golf course grass will pollute the environment, especially groundwater.

"The transport ministry said it is difficult to expand the airport due to limited land, but that is unreasonable when 157 hectares of the airport's land has [recently] been used to build a golf course complex with hotels and restaurants," they wrote in the petition to lawmakers from HCMC.

The petition has since been forwarded to the National Assembly Vietnam's legislature as well as the central government and the transport ministry.

At a recent meeting with the city's lawmakers, resident Le Van Sang asked whether the golf course was being built due the influence of special interest groups. He asked city authorities to closely inspect the project.

Huynh Dang, another constituent, asked why land owned by the defense ministry has been used for the golf course instead of defense purposes.

"Is it built to serve tycoons and corrupt officials? No civilians can afford to play golf," he said.

In response to city legislator Tran Quang Thang's question about the construction of a golf course in Tan Son Nhat's buffer zone, HCMC mayor Le Hoang Quan (chairman of the municipal People's Committee) said the land is managed by the defense ministry and central agencies are responsible for issuing such licenses.

The city authorities only make proposals relating to any construction in this area if it affects aviation safety, he added.

Ill-conceived plan

Le Trong Sanh, former head of Tan Son Nhat airport's flight management section, and Mai Trong Tuan, a retired airline and military pilot, are standing by proposals they sent to the Prime Minister in opposition to the Long Thanh airport project.

"$8 billion is a huge investment while the country and people are still poor. It would be a waste to build a new airport when it is possible to upgrade and expand Tan Son Nhat airport," Sanh said.

If it is expanded to the north, Tan Son Nhat will have an area two times larger than Singapore's Changi Airport, a major Asian hub, he said.

Sanh said he and Tuan has proposed expanding Bien Hoa Military Airport, which is closer to major connecting HCMC thoroughfares. A tramway is also under construction to connect Bien Hoa to downtown HCMC.

"Two airports in two adjacent cities with connected transport routes will be better than the unconnected Long Thanh airport," he said.

Sanh also said there would be no problem expanding Tan Son Nhat airport northwards because the city has mainly been developing to the northeast only.

Nguyen Xuan Thanh, director of the Public Policy Program at the HCMC-based Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, said his team had assessed the project and found that it is financially-ineffective.

"No investor is interested in investing in the airport under a BOT [build-operate-transfer] project"¦ It will need to use ODA [official development assistant]"¦ The problem then is that the whole country has to pay the debt," he told Dat Viet newspaper.

Long Thanh airport would not be able to compete with major transit airports in Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, he said, adding that Kuala Lumpur has failed to become a major regional transit airport as previously planned.

Nguyen Thien Tong, a lecturer at the HCMC Technology University, was also concerned over possible use of ODA in the project.

"We will be unable to pay loans used to invest in ineffective projects. We can only borrow but our descendants will be unable to pay," he said.

Tong said Tan Son Nhat airport is able to serve 25 million passengers a year and expanding the airport would increase the number to 35 million.

Much of the skepticism about the Long Thanh airport project also comes from Vietnam's history of major investments-gone-bad.

"Thus, people allege that those who proposed such projects are short-sighted or proposed them because of "˜unexplained' benefits," Tong said.

Nguyen Dang Diep, deputy director of the Agriculture Biotechnology Center, said the government should conduct more studies before going ahead with the project.

"[The government] should consider the lessons of major corruption scandals and Vietnam's many abandoned industrial parks before investing in the Long Thanh airport."

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