Tuesday, March 16, 2010

China's empty airports

Perhaps following South Korea's lead, China's government is busy constructing underutilized airports:
It's less than two hours before boarding time but most of the staff of Libo Airport are walking off their dinner of spicy dog meat with an evening stroll around the parking lot.

...Handling just two flights a week hasn't fostered a deep sense of urgency for the 50 or so workers at the airport. On this night, a garage door-sized video monitor displays a single arrival and departure.

This is not how things were supposed to be when the $57-million airport opened in late 2007. Local officials were so confident that tourists would flock to this beautiful, mountainous county in southwestern China that they made the terminal big enough to accommodate 220,000 passengers annually, and built a runway capable of handling a 140-seat Boeing 737.

But only a few charters and budget carriers have established service here. A grand total of 151 people flew in and out of Libo last year.

...China has added about 40 airports in the last decade alone, bringing its total to 166. The U.S., by comparison, has 503 airports that serve at least 2,500 passengers a year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

But in the mad dash to expand China's civil aviation system, many new airports are lacking one important thing: passengers.

Spurred by federal infrastructure money, easy bank loans and the cachet of having planes land in their backyard, many small cities jumped at the opportunity to lay down runways and open terminals.

"An airport is like a business card for the city. It can boost tourism and the economy," said Xu Hongjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China. "But a lot of small airports are not doing well. They need a lot of subsidies from the central government. They were too optimistic."

...Some locations chosen for new airports have left even experts scratching their heads. Last year a facility was opened 13,000 feet above sea level on the steppes of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, where temperatures can drop to minus-43 degrees Fahrenheit. Engineers had to temper the concrete runway just to withstand the harsh weather conditions.

Only 7,500 passengers used the airport last year.
Beyond moral or philosophical grounds, advocates for limited government believe public expenditures -- which represent a claim on the resources of its citizens -- should be held to as little as possible for at least two very practical reasons. The first is that political leaders are incentivized to allocate resources on a patronage basis to their supporters rather than their most productive use (basically public choice theory). Second, even if political leaders shun such thinking, they simply lack the information to disperse public funds in a manner which attains the most bang for the buck.

This is why, be it China or Johnstown, Pennsylvania, governments around the world inevitably build unused airports and bridges to nowhere. It's also a good explanation of why any government-led effort at sparking long-term economic growth based on increased expenditures is almost inevitably doomed to failure.

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