Is Shutting Songshan Airport a Flight of Fancy?

An Air China Boeing 737 on the tarmac at Songshan Airport. Photo: Wikipedia.

Given the downtown airport’s ownership structure and importance in serving Taiwan’s outlying islands, closing it would be problematic.

Originally from Xindian, Alex Tsai is the manager of a bed and breakfast in the offshore island-county of Penghu and travels to Taipei up to five times a year to visit family and friends, shop, and take a break from Penghu’s splendid isolation. When he read media reports that the Taipei City government was considering shutting Songshan down, Tsai was not pleased. “For travelers like me, there’s no comparison between the convenience of the Songshan and Taoyuan airports,” he says.

Even with the opening of the Taoyuan Airport MRT, which makes it possible to reach the airport from central Taipei within 45 minutes, Tsai prefers Songshan. “It takes 50 minutes to fly from Penghu to downtown Taipei [Songshan],” he notes. “It’s about the same time to fly to Taoyuan, but then it’s another hour to get to Taipei by the time you disembark and take the train.”

Above, an Air China Boeing 737 on the tarmac at Songshan Airport; below, a Uni Air flight to Penghu preparing to depart from Songshan. Photo: Matthew Fulco

Songshan is both a civilian airport and military airbase. It was the sole international airport serving Taipei until 1979, when Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport (now Taoyuan Airport) opened in Taoyuan. From then until the late 2000s, Songshan served only domestic routes.

The resumption of direct air links between Taiwan and China in 2008 provided impetus for Songshan’s expansion. Along with the thaw in cross-Strait relations, the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016) promoted the idea of using Songshan as a hub in a “Northeast Asia Golden Flight Circuit” of city airports. During Ma’s first term, routes were opened from Songshan to Shanghai’s Hongqiao, Tokyo’s Haneda and Seoul’s Gimpo airports.

Between 2008 and 2012, passenger volume at Songshan surged from 3.1 million to 5.7 million, and then grew more modestly to 6.1 million in 2016 as restrictions were placed on adding new capacity.

Business travelers, who account for a large swath of Songshan’s passenger volume, have lauded the airport’s re-introduction of international flights. “Being able to fly from Songshan to Hongqiao really reduces my travel time between Taipei and Shanghai,” says Jerry Wei, a senior director at the market intelligence firm Migo, which has offices in Taipei, Shanghai, and San Jose, California. Wei flies the Songshan-Hongqiao route almost monthly.

Since he lives in the eastern Taipei district of Nangang, Wei has little reason to take the Taoyuan Airport MRT, which terminates at Taipei Main Station in the west of the city. “Going that route is not a good use of my time,” he says.

Also relying on the Songshan-Hongqiao route is Carl Wegner, director of Greater China business development for R3, a New York-based financial technology consortium. “Customs clearance is quicker, and there’s no need to travel to Taoyuan,” says Wegner, who divides his time between Shanghai and Taipei. “You just need to accept smaller planes and no late flight options.”

Clipping Songshan’s wings

Despite Songshan’s revival over the past decade, the Taipei City government under Mayor Ko Wen-je has called for its business to be transferred to the Taoyuan airport by 2020. At the ceremony launching the Taoyuan Airport MRT in March, Ko urged the central government to begin discussing the relocation of Songshan’s routes with local governments.

“The integration of Songshan and Taoyuan airports can be discussed in a more serious manner with the launch of the Wugu-Yangmei Overpass along the National Sun Yat-Sen Freeway [Freeway No.1] in 2013 and the airport MRT line,” Ko was quoted as saying in the English-language Taipei Times. “It is time that the government made a decision.”

In place of the airport, the Taipei City government proposes building a 330-hectare “Central Park.” The plan would join the former airport site on the southern bank of the Keelung River with riverside sections of Taipei’s Dazhi and Dawan areas, forming a wetland park. Together with the nearby Taipei Expo Park, it would form a Central Park that could be used among other things as a venue for outdoor movie screenings, concerts, and live broadcasts of sports events.

The idea isn’t new. During the 2002 Taipei City mayoral election campaign, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lee Ying-yuan, now Minister of the Environmental Protection Administration, suggested turning Songshan into a large green space like New York City’s Central Park. But Lee lost the election to Ma Ying-jeou, and the proposal was shelved.

As reasons for shutting Songshan down, the Taipei City government and other opponents of the airport point to its impact on the local community. Besides the noise from planes, height restrictions mean developers cannot build structures as high as they would like.

At the same time, proximity to the airport lowers property values in the neighborhood, in what would otherwise be a prime downtown Taipei location, observes Paul Lee, head of AmCham Taipei’s Infrastructure Committee and chairman and CEO of Global Construction International.

Lai Chen-I, Chairman of the General Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of China and a veteran of the construction industry, urges the government to act to shut down Songshan now that the Taoyuan Airport MRT is in operation. “It’s now possible to get from downtown Taipei to Taoyuan Airport in just 35 minutes; it’s very convenient,” he says. “So why do we still need Songshan, which has a negative effect on the city?”

Lai suggests the Songshan site be converted into a central business district with premium residential, office, and retail space. “It should be like Manhattan,” he says.

Some opponents of Songshan Airport say that its location in downtown Taipei makes it inherently unsafe. Those voices grew especially loud in the wake of the February 2015 crash in the Keelung River of TransAsia Airways Flight 235, which resulted in 43 deaths and 14 injuries. The Kinmen-bound flight had just taken off from Songshan Airport.

Following the crash, Kuomintang legislator Luo Shu-lei told the Chinese-language United Daily News that Songshan was the “most dangerous airport” in the world and should be shut down.

A March 2015 editorial in the English-language Taiwan News said that Songshan poses a threat to the safety not just of nearby residents, but to all the parts of Taipei City and New Taipei City that are below flight paths. “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?” the editorial said.

Hwang Tay-lin, an associate professor of aviation and maritime management at Chang Jung Christian University, says that media reports about Songshan Airport being unsafe are exaggerated. The airport is in full compliance with international aviation requirements, he says. “It’s not reasonable to say that Songshan is unsafe simply because it is located in an urban area,” Huang maintains. “The TransAsia crash occurred because of pilot error, not because of an issue related to the airport itself.”

Easier said than done

In January, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) announced it had commissioned a feasibility study to evaluate whether Songshan Airport should be closed and its air traffic moved to Taoyuan. The Ministry’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and the Taoyuan International Airport Corp. are currently working together on the study, which is expected to be completed by year-end.

Lee of AmCham Taipei’s Infrastructure Committee questions whether the study will be perceived as being objective. “With the government carrying out the study, people are going to think it’s biased,” he says. “What we need is for the government to hire an independent party who can stay above local politics and offer objective analysis and recommendations.”

Three scenes at Songshan Airport, clockwise from the top of the page: Terminal 1, the airport’s MRT station, and Terminal 2. Photo: Wikipedia.

In an interview with Taiwan Business TOPICS, CAA Director-General Lin Kuo-shian highlighted three issues that will weigh heavily in any decision about Songshan’s future. First, travelers to and from Taiwan’s offshore islands account for 84.3% of Songshan’s annual domestic passenger volume of 2.8 million people. “If Songshan Airport’s flight capacity is relocated to Taoyuan Airport, it will greatly impact their needs and rights,” he says. Many of those passengers come to Taipei for just a limited amount of time and highly value the convenience of Songshan, he notes.

Underscoring that point, DPP Legislator Yang Yao, who represents Penghu, said during a meeting of the Legislative Yuan in March that residents of Taiwan’s offshore islands strongly oppose closing Songshan since it would compromise their access to the high-quality medical facilities in Taipei.

Secondly, the CAA owns only 41.5% of Songshan’s land, with the remainder belonging to the Ministry of National Defense. “For Songshan to be shut down, the Ministry of National Defense would have to agree, and they have their own considerations, different from the CAA or the Taipei City government,” Lin explains.

Thirdly, Lin points out that Taoyuan Airport’s passenger volume has spiked in recent years. Its runways, terminals, and aprons are on the brink of overload, and have no extra capacity to accommodate Songshan’s passengers and facilities. “It would be better to evaluate the feasibility of relocating Songshan Airport in 2030, after capacity improvements of Taoyuan have been completed,” he says.

In March, speaking to legislators, Premier Lin Chuan said that the government does not currently have any plans to relocate Songshan Airport. “Some have proposed relocating the airport for a while now. But the crux of our considerations is not just the outer islands, but also matters of national security,” he was quoted as saying in the English-language China Post.

With efforts to relocate Songshan at an impasse, a plan approved in 2012 by the Cabinet to transform the city airport into an Asia-Pacific business travel hub may find new support. That US$1 billion project was to be overseen by the CAA and MOTC for implementation in two stages over a 20-year period. It would involve relocating the CAA headquarters and airline company offices on the east side of the airport to free up five hectares of land for a convention center, hotels, office buildings, and shopping malls.

Then-Deputy MOTC Minister Yeh Kuang-shih estimated that the redevelopment of the Songshan Airport area would attract between NT$20 billion and NT$40 billion private investment (about US$656 million to US$1.3 billion) and create 10,000 new jobs.

In the meantime, business travelers are thankful Songshan faces no imminent closure. “In my four years of commuting between Shanghai and Taipei, if there was ever a flight from Hongqiao to Songshan, I would jump on that first,” says R3’s Wegner. Compared to the Pudong Airport-Taoyuan Airport route, “It feels twice as easy.”