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Reconsider the future of Taipei Songshan Airport

Reconsider the future of Taipei Songshan Airport

Dozens of people died, including experienced pilots and cabin crew, and several tourists from China. The images of a plane hitting an elevated highway and plunging into a river went around the world.
While rescue efforts are still continuing and the exact causes of the disaster are far from clear, it would be reckless to point fingers at any one potential culprit.
The French-built ATR-72 aircraft will be subject to close scrutiny especially after a plane of a similar type crashed in Penghu last July in the previous deadly air disaster to strike Taiwan.
TransAsia Airways operated both flights, which means its pilot training programs and technical maintenance will also draw the attention of investigators.
However, the focus of attention will also be on the location where the disaster happened. Why the plane did not turn south and then veer west as its normal route in the direction of Kinmen mandated, might never be known, but it has generally been ascribed to a pilot decision to avoid densely populated parts of the capital and stay close to the Keelung River instead.
The plane reportedly narrowly missed several high-rise buildings and hit an elevated road before crashing down into the river. We might never know whether the pilot had a scenario in mind of a plane in distress landing smoothly on river water without loss of life, as was displayed during an airline accident in New York.
The truth is that urban Taipei is not a suitable environment for a busy airport. Songshan used to be an international airport, but in days when overseas air travel was not yet as frequent as today. After international flights moved out to Taoyuan, Songshan took a backseat to become the home of domestic flights, with a terminal hardly different from the average railway station.
The airport first became a topic of conversation in the 2002 Taipei City mayoral election, when opposition Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lee Ying-yuan challenged incumbent Mayor Ma Ying-jeou with a proposal to close down Songshan and turn its vast area into the Taipei equivalent of New York City’s Central Park.
Lee lost the election and since then, central and local authorities have gone straight into the opposite direction, developing once dormant Taipei Songshan Airport into a home for international flights.
As the high-speed railway took away passengers from domestic flights, the airlines refocused their attention on minor destinations around East Asia. At the same time, Ma, now president, improved relations with China and went full-tilt for the expansion of direct flights to China. In addition, the central government wanted to develop tourism, which led to a rapid increase of the number of tourists visiting Taiwan from overseas.
As a result, Songshan managed to draw in crowds of travelers from China, Japan and South Korea, while Taiwanese visiting those countries also saw the airport as more convenient than outlying Taoyuan.
The reality remains that with more than 3 million people living in the areas close by, any airport, no matter its size or number of flights, is going to pose a threat. The rapid increase in the number of flights over the past few years is only making that threat more realistic than it already was during the election campaign almost 13 years ago.
Once the investigation into the cause of the latest disaster fades into the background, the need to reevaluate the usefulness of having the airport continue to operate will still exist.
The authorities will have to stare the problem right into its face. Do you keep an airport running which might cause the loss of hundreds or even thousands of lives the next time things go wrong, or do you close it down in an orderly process and transfer its operations to another airport ready to take over?
Taipei Songshan Airport is enclosed, not just by homes and businesses, but also by mountains. It has only one runway and shares some of its operations with the military, so it has hardly space enough to expand.
In addition, the routes of the flights into and out of its runway mean that vast parts of Linkou, Luchou, Sanchung, Hsichih and mostly northern parts of Taipei City live under the permanent threat of falling victim to airline accidents. The areas are also subject to building restrictions, as apartment blocks cannot rise too high or they will impede air traffic.
When Taipei 101 was built, routes out of the airport had to be redesigned so planes would not venture too close to the landmark skyscraper. The presence of significant high-tech and software businesses in the nearby Neihu and Nangang Districts of the capital also form a possible disaster-in-waiting in the event of a crash.
Apart from the potential for huge loss of life, there are also other aspects to a possible disaster. If the TransAsia flight had hit a nearby electricity unit, it might have cut power to half the capital, Mayor Ko Wen-je said Thursday.
Even business leaders who might bemoan the loss of economic activity resulting from the closure of the airport, are now coming around to sympathizing with such a decision. General Chamber of Commerce Chairman Lai Cheng-I said Thursday that once the Mass Rapid Transit line to Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport becomes operational next year, the old airport can be closed and a new financial center area can take its place.
The future of the area of course will become a new political football between proponents of more green and supporters of more construction and more business, but whatever the outcome, safety for Taipei residents must come first.
Not only will the new MRT line bring an easier connection between Taipei, New Taipei and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, but there are also plans to build a third terminal while there is also the Aerotropolis Project breaking new ground to expand the area. Such an expansion is completely impossible near Taipei Songshan Airport.
The Taoyuan airport is large enough and has been modernized sufficiently to accommodate additional international and the original dwindling number of domestic flights. Improving public transportation choices and room for growth in the area make it an attractive option.
Why continue to risk disaster and subject residents of the capital to daily danger and noise if there is a valid alternative? The move away from Songshan might cause some complaints about unemployment and about taxi drivers losing business, but the decision might give the area a new lease on life without the perils associated with a busy airport crammed into a space unfit for its operation.
With city elections out of the way, the climate might be right for a serene debate about an issue which might affect the environment of all Taipei residents.


Updated : 2021-09-27 04:16 GMT+08:00