Not so long ago, the issue exercising minds in much of Asia Pacific was whether airport capacity would be able to keep pace with the region's roaring traffic growth. Since last year's economic turmoil took hold, the concerns have changed.

After decades of topping the growth tables, the region now finds itself in unfamiliar territory at the bottom of the league. According to figures from the Airport Council International, passenger numbers at Asia-Pacific's airports grew by only 3% last year - the weakest growth rate of any of the world's major traffic regions.

So far this year, passenger numbers have been falling at a rate of around 7-8% and cargo volumes, which had held up relatively well over the last year, now appear to be turning down. The Top 50 airport ranking shows the extent of the decline, especially worrying for Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, each of which opened spanking new airports - Chep Lap Kok and Sepang - earlier this year.

Although long-term forecasts suggest that growth will return to Asia-Pacific, there are concerns that the region's economic woes may put a dampener on a host of other airport projects. Richard Stirland, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), believes plans for airport capacity expansion in Bangkok and Manila have "probably slipped back for some considerable time".

However, David Inglis at the International Air Transport Association, says that the financing of Seoul's new Inchon International airport is in place. South Korea recently brought forward its opening to January 1999, but airlines, mindful of the initial chaos at Chek Lap Kok and Sepang, are pushing for this to be the official, rather than the actual, start date, he says. Inglis adds that there are "concerns" that the rail links will not be ready in time, although a bus system should be in place. Airlines are still keen to see the high- speed rail link running at out-of-town Sepang "as soon as possible", especially after the postponement of a dedicated express highway.

Other projects are plagued by uncertainty. Political and economic unease in Thailand is hampering the development of a new airport there, says Inglis. " Bangkok has said it will open in 2004 but it will later than that," he says, adding that hopes have been raised by a recent change in the management of the Thai airport authority.

The only real capacity constraint in the region remains in Japan and in particular Tokyo. But Stirland says Narita will get its second runway within the next year or two. "The small number of families holding out against the runway is dwindling. It's not such an issue as it was," he says. Osaka Kansai is due to open a second runway in 2007 but to cope with immediate capacity problems it is boosting aircraft movements from 26 to 31 an hour at the end of the year, according to Inglis.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore Changi is due to get a hefty boost to passenger capacity next year and a major cargo expansion by 2001. In South Korea, Cheju is also investing in cargo, almost trebling capacity by September 2000.

Stirland believes that the Asian airlines are unlikely to worry about the lack of new building. "Horizons have shortened considerably as a result of the economic crisis," he says, adding that new airports are anyway equated with higher charges.

Source: Airline Business