Last year, a tourism expert close to Taiwan’s president suggested the eventual demolition of Taipei’s downtown Songshan International Airport to make way for a riverside park.
The famed hotelier added his voice to figures in Taiwan’s main opposition party who saw the 60-year-old airport as a useless throwback. It was effectively replaced in 1979 by the much larger Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, an hour’s drive outside the city, they pointed out.
The launch of Taiwan’s high-speed railway in 2007 and the indefinite closure of Taipei-based Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT) a year later left Songshan so moribund that passengers occasionally had to grab security’s attention for baggage checks, instead of the other way around.
But now, Songshan is suddenly on a steep comeback ascent. Since 2008, Taiwan’s central government has opened 69 direct weekly flights from the in-town airport to 11 cities in nearby southern China, particularly to Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, 80 minutes away, which attract hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese business travellers, such as local investors who are estimated to have poured in excess of US$100 billion into mainland China.
In October, Songshan launched 56 weekly flights to central Tokyo’s expanding Haneda Airport, while Taiwanese officials are now talking to Seoul’s downtown Gimpo International Airport as they try to position Songshan as an East Asian hub for business flights. All domestic flights out of Taipei also use Songshan, though high-speed rail has put a dent in demand.
“Today’s policy won’t allow for any demolition. The president has earmarked Songshan as an airport for development,” says 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 specialize in capital-to-capital flights.”
Before opening routes to Haneda and Hongqiao, Songshan had already absorbed some of the other 370 weekly direct mainland China-Taiwan flights, which were launched in the wake of a thaw in political relations between Taipei and Beijing since 2008.
Those flights quadrupled passenger volume between the neighbours that year. Before 2008, most mainland-bound passengers from Taiwan had to make costly, time-consuming stopovers in Hong Kong or Macau.
Songshan’s location on a major Taipei subway line, between two densely populated neighbourhoods, with links to several public bus services have helped revitalise its popularity. Some travellers quip that they can meet a partner for coffee in Taipei, get to an afternoon meeting in Shanghai and return to Taipei in time for dinner.
“You can save so much time, and this is especially convenient for service industry executives, such as in finance and media, with business in Taipei where their headquarters may be located,” says Samuel Kuo, president of a Taiwanese business association in mainland China and a furniture company chairman, who has flown the Songshan-Hongqiao route.
Airlines are scrambling to expand their presence 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,” says Hamilton Liu, spokesman for China Airlines, (CAL) Taiwan’s largest carrier.
CAL and its biggest local rival EVA Airways both operate from Songshan to Tokyo and Shanghai. CAL has taken about 41,000 passengers overseas from Songshan since June and plans to expand.
However, airlines also grumble about the 1.82 square-kilometre airport’s limitations, as the number of international flights grows. Songshan’s runway cannot accommodate larger aircraft such as Boeing 747s, let alone Airbus A380 superjumbos. Flights at a busy time slot may overwhelm the facility’s six international boarding gates. Neighbours’ noise complaints have also mounted.
Airport staff also must work around a massive T$990 million (US$32 million) remodelling project through September 2011, which will close one of the airport’s two terminals for upgrades. But once the project is done, officials say, the compact airport will be ready to accommodate anticipated growth in volume – it expects to handle 3.38 million passengers per year once the upgrades are done.
“If you ask whether Songshan is to our advantage, then of course, since an in-town airport should add convenience,” says EVA Air publicist Katherine Ko.
Songshan’s revival should become an engine for Taiwanese economic growth, says Wai Ho Leong, regional economist with Barclays Capital in Singapore.
Mainland Chinese group tours, allowed in Taiwan for the past two years, can spend more time sightseeing if they start from Songshan compared with Taoyuan, while tourism from Japan and South Korea is expected to increase. Taipei property prices will also rise as business people active in mainland China spend more time on the island, Leong says.
“The airport is another factor enhancing Taiwan’s value proposition,” he adds.