Myanmar-Kenting Flight Proposal Lifts Hopes for Pingtung’s Forlorn Hengchun Airport

Myanmar-Kenting Flight Proposal Lifts Hopes for Pingtung’s Forlorn Hengchun Airport
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Could a revitalized airport bring a new lease of life to Taiwan's south?

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If a proposed flight from Myanmar does actually land at Hengchun Airport on July 28, 2018 – as a report in the Chinese-language Liberty Times in early July claims, “has a decent chance of happening” – a new lease of life could be on the cards for both Kenting’s currently unused airport, and perhaps Kenting tourism as well.

But, of course, the Kenting airport has been promised “new leases on life” before.

I flew into Hengchun (Kenting) Airport from Taipei in 2010. It was for a DJ gig and the organizers wanted me there in a rush so they shelled out for the faster, but more expensive way to get to south Taiwan’s beach resort. I was excited as it was a first for me. As the propeller-plane landed, however, I understood why news reports about Taiwan’s most southern airport all seemed rather negative.

Hengchun Airport should be a winner. Take the High-Speed Rail (HSR) from Taipei and you’ve still got to endure another two hours on a bumpy bus before you arrive at the famous Kenting Strip. Friends of mine in the north tell me after assessing transport time and transport and hotel costs, they find it’s cheaper or comparable to fly from Taipei to Japan or some other nearby Asian location.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Taiwanese XING Mobility electric supercar 'Miss R' is seen during a test drive in Hengchun, Taiwan March 1, 2018.

Flying from Taipei’s Songshan Airport to Hengchun takes just over an hour and you’d be on the beach some 20 minutes after touchdown. The prices between a flight and the HSR/bus might not differ radically, but the convenience of a nearly direct flight should in theory propel at least a greater number of northerners to spend a weekend in the far south.

But, as I got to experience, the Hengchun peninsula is prone to katabatic winds, which Wikipedia explains is the “technical name for a drainage wind, a wind that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity … Katabatic winds can rush down elevated slopes at hurricane speeds …”

My 2010 landing was rough. Not "hurricane" rough, but the plane swayed left and right in a pendulum descent that was highly unnerving.

Constructed in 2003 and opened in January of the following year, Hengchun Airport cost well over NT$500 million (US$16.4 million) to build. Coded “HCN,” some thought the airport would really take off, but frequent closures due to wind conditions and the opening of the HSR in 2007 saw HCN’s passenger numbers fall from 23,000 in year one, to under 1,000 for the first eight months of 2014, after which it was essentially mothballed.

Since then debates have swirled as to what to do with Hengchun Airport, which has been used in the interim for shooting TV commercials, a car show or two, sundry mass gatherings and as a party spot for a huge EDM rave during one of the annual April Tomb Sweeping Day holiday “spring breaks” in Kenting.

But of course, HCN is an airport and many in Pingtung would like to see it used as such, especially considering the Pingtung County government must allocate a budget to keep it even marginally maintained.

Using heavier planes to counter wind issues was mooted, but the runway is a tad short. Extending the runway was proposed, but no concreate action was taken. Other ideas for the airport’s future were informally bantered about, including concepts such as a training field for novice pilots, having the military take it over, or even shutting it down for good and rezoning and selling the land.

Hengchun Airport’s runway is 1,800-meters long, which is adequate for smaller planes, most of which have seating for about 72 passengers.

Last May, Pingtung Magistrate Pan Men-an (潘孟安) raised hopes that Hengchun Airport might soon bring in tourists on international charter flights after reminding the media that the Executive Yuan had agreed in 2016 “in principle” to a two-year trial run to test the feasibility of the proposal. But, aside from a test landing in August 2017 by an ATR plane, nothing became of the trial run.

Hengchun Airport’s runway is 1,800-meters long, which is adequate for smaller planes, most of which have seating for about 72 passengers. Extend the runway to 2,400 or 2,600 meters and significantly larger planes could land. The Liberty Times reports a short-term goal is a 400-meter runway extension, but it’s unlikely that extension can be built in time for the proposed July 28 flight from Myanmar that would ferry in some 100 members of the media and tourism operators.

Again, relying on the Liberty Times report, the plan for July 28 calls for using a Myanmar Airways International Airbus A319 plane, the same type of plane that regularly lands on Gibraltar Airport’s roughly 1,680-meter runway. Gibraltar also faces wind issues, and while it does not have identical conditions to Hengchun, the fact that over 440,000 passengers landed at Gibraltar in 2015 should at least point to the possibility that Hengchun could become a viable landing spot.

There are still hurdles to overcome. Kaohsiung Airport will reportedly need to send staff to deal with immigration and customs clearance and Civil Aviation Authorities have not yet officially granted clearance for the July 28 flight. There are also issues related to restricted air space in the area due to the nearby Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant (馬鞍山核能發電廠 or 核三), but these hurdles are not insurmountable.

A flight from Myanmar wasn’t what I’d had imagined would be the first international flight into a rebooted Hengchun Airport, but if does touch down on Saturday, July 28 2018, it will be a welcome development for a struggling Kenting.

Once again hope is aloft that “HCN” could be ending its years as a derided “mosquito airport” and on its way to becoming south Taiwan’s newest international gateway.

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Editor: David Green