Aerotropolis 2020: Visions vs Realities

Since 2006, John Kasarda, the most prominent proponent of aerotropolis developments, has published a plethora of articles extolling the supposed benefits of these megaprojects. The series begins with: Airport Cities and the Aerotropolis. In subsequent publications the same examples of aerotropolis-type projects crop up repeatedly, such as Schiphol, Frankfurt, Munich, Stockholm Arlanda in Europe, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Changi and Incheon in Asia, McCarran and Dallas/Fort Worth in the USA. Over the years some of the ambitious aerotropolis plans have been realised. Others are repeatedly stalled, in spite of heavy-handed intervention of governments designating large land areas and bestowing sweeping planning powers on airport-developer partnerships.

In the early months of 2020 Kasarda’s two-part global review of aerotropolis developments was published in Airport World, the magazine of Airports Council International (ACI), the global trade representative of the world’s airports. Part 1 Aerotropolis business magnets covers the Asia-Pacific region. Airports’ prodigious land ownership is emphasised in the second paragraph framing the aerotropolises featured in the article: ‘Airports themselves frequently contain thousands of acres of commerical real estate’.

Kasarda writes that China is ‘leading the way’. Airport-centric projects in China are indeed gargantuan. Beijing Capital Airport, ‘corner-stoned by its airport city logistics park (ACLP)’, is part of the 178 square kilometre Beijing Airport Core Economy Zone (BACEZ). Baiyun Airport provided a starting point for the city of Guangzhou’s aerotropolis development. This proved ‘slow to materialise due to inability to align local jurisdictions’, until the 116 square kilometre cross-jurisdictional Guangzhou Aerotropolis Development District (GADD) was established in September 2015. Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZAEZ) centred around Zhengzhou Xinzheng Airport is even larger, spanning 415 square kilometres.

Looking beyond China Kasarda highlights Incheon Airport, the main airport of Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, with ‘substantial commercial real estate development on its vast property’ filled with office complexes, hotels, resorts and logistics zones. Outside the airport fence development of the ‘greater aerotropolis’ is fostered by Incheon Free Zone extending over 209 square kilometres. In Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur Airport, KLIA Aeropolis is ‘expansive’, covering 100 square kilometres. But full development on an expansive land bank remains largely on the drawing board. KLIA Aeropolis is still ‘focussed on implementing plans’, even though a Kuala Lumpur airport city is hailed Kasarda’s aforementioned 2006 article as exemplifying ‘the new model of international airport development and management’. In India, Hyderabad Airport is ‘executing a theme-based airport city master plan consisting of six major commerical clusters… its 1,500 acre airport city includes a multi-produce special economic zone’. A grandiose sounding but more nebulous ‘greater Hyderabad Aerotropolis’ extends 10-20 kilometres outwards from the airport and is ‘dominated by IT and other high-tech, aviation-oriented sectors’.

A more recently conceived project is Western Sydney Aerotropolis. Plans were completed in 2019 and authorities have stepped in to fund the requisite surface transport links; the project is ‘backed by huge financial commitments by the central government for connecting rail and highway infrastructure’. In Thailand aerotropolis development is extending outward from U-Tapao Airport, a former US air base, and is a component of a much larger megaproject, the Eastern Economic Corridor (a special economic zone encompassing three provinces). In the Philippines investment in aerotropolis development at Clark Airport, another former US air base, is reported.

Over the years Kasarda began to acknowledge opposition to aerotropolis project from communities directly affected, by displacement due to land acquisition and negative environmental impacts. The 2020 article mentions that construction of another aerotropolis in the Philippines, in Bulacan, has been impeded by opposition to the environmental impacts, protests by fishermen. (Pamalakaya – National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organization in the Philippines – is opposing the ‘undemocratic and unscientific’ Bulacan Aerotropolis project which would be ‘detrimental to the marine environment of Manila Bay’). Another example is the 4,500 hectare Taoyuan Aerotropolis in Taiwan (referred to by Kasarda as ‘Chinese Taipei’). Development was slowed down by protests over expropriation of farmland (see 2014 Ecologist article) but apparently concerns are being addressed by government bodies aiming to ‘jump start’ the government’s ‘flagship project’.

Part 2, Aerotropolis englines beyond Asia, looks at developments in Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East. In France, Charles de Gaulle Airport has 1,340 hectares ‘dedicated to non-aeronautical development’ of which 600 hectares is already occupied by hotels, offices, retail and distribution facilities. This is the ‘epicentre’ of larger aerotropolis development around two airports: the Charles de Gaulle-Le Bourget Airport Area covers 420 square kilometres. Already there are 17 logistics parks, 85 business parks and two exhibition and convention complexes, along with 12,000 hotel rooms, in this area, described as ‘among the world’s fastest developing aerotropolises’. In Finland, a 42 square kilometre ‘Aviapolis’ is being developed around Helsinki Airport, enabled by a PPP (public-private partnership) between the city of Vantaa, airport operator Finavia and local landowners. Aviapolis already hosts 2,000 companies, a hotel cluster and ‘jumbo’ shopping centre.

Frankfurt Airport City contains the hotels, shops, restaurants, offices, leisure and exhibition facilities that are ubiquitous to airport-centric urbanism. Key components include Gateway Gardens (so heavily built up that there is little of the green space people might expect from this appellation) and the 75 hectare Mönchhof Logistics Park. The large footprint of the development area is highlighted, Mönchhof is ‘reputedly the largest contiguous block of logistically zoned land being constructed in the Rhine-Main region’. Munich Airport is ‘developing a future-oriented innovation campus on 500,000sqm of land’. No surprise at this description, such developments are never hailed as backward-looking and imitative.

Aerotropolis development in the US is characterised by allocation of large areas of land for airport-linked development. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport covers nearly 69 square kilometres and at this juncture 2,428 hectares of airport property designated for commerce and industry has been developed, most recently a business park and a 223,000 square metre Amazon ‘fulfillment centre’. At 137 square kilometers Denver Airport’s site is even larger, containing ‘vast expanses of open land’ for aerotropolis development. After a decade of inactivity airport-centric development in the Detroit Region has been galvanised by support from the Aerotropolis Detroit Region Aerotropolis Development Corporation, which ‘mobilised fiscal resources to promote 60,000 developable acres’ around Detroit Metro Airport.

No details are given about what is actually happening at Alberta, Edmonton and Vancouver airports, stated to be ‘at the forefront’ of aerotropolis development in Canada. Another major aerotropolis is planned around the proposed new airport in Pickering, but this airport is long-delayed as ‘environmentalists still fight the project’ (opposition to this airport, taking up a vast area of productive farmland, has been led by Land Over Landings since 2005). Aerotropolis development at Tocumen Airport in Panama, and Belo Horizonte Airport in Brazil has been impeded by ‘political and economic disruptions’. Contractors involved in construction of the New Mexico City Airport, cancelled in 2018, benefitted from $4.5 billion in compensation awarded by Mexico City’s airport authority.

In South Africa, an airport city at Johannesburg Airport consisting of three commercial precincts is reported to be ‘forming’, based on a 2015 master plan for a 30 kilometre radius around the airport. A large area is earmarked for Durban Aerotropolis, centred upon King Shaka International Airport (KSIA); ‘about 8,000 developable hectares radiate from KSIA’. But as of 2019 development was still a the ‘planned’ stage, 4,200 hectares of commercial development and over 130,000 residential units.

Several Middle East countries have ‘stated ambitions to develop airport cities at their primary air gateways and aerotropolises around them’, including Abu Dhabi, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Only Dubai ‘followed through and went big’. Terminal 3 – encompassing duty-free shops, hotels and leisure facilities – itself constitutes an airport city and there is also a substantial Free Zone comprising distribution centres, offices, light manfacturing and a temperature-controlled centre for perishable cargo.

Dubai’s second airport, Al Maktoum, opened in 2013, was intended to ‘anchor’ a gigantic 145 square kilometer aerotropolis called Dubai South. There are elaborate plans for ‘eight surrounding aerotropolis districts focusing on Aviation Industry, Logisitcs, Residential, Golf, Commerical, Humanitarian, and Exhibition (World Expo 2020 for instance) functions plus Dubai Business Park’ around what was anticipated to become the world’s busiest airport. By 2019 1,200 firms were located at Dubai South but further development, dependent upon plans to shift much of Dubai Airport’s traffic to Al Maktoum, is ‘likely to be impacted’ due to declining growth of Emirates Airline’s passenger traffic. Al Maktoum Airport is a long way from becoming the world’s busiest airport. By 2019 the mega airport had capacity to handle 26.5 million passengers per year but after handling less than 1 million passengers in 2018 had ‘very limited traffic’ except for ‘quite a few cargo planes’.

Al Maktoum Airport and Dubai South were well-positioned to play a key role in World Expo 2020. Then came the coronvirus pandemic. World Expo 2020 and similar global events were cancelled and the aviation industry spiralled downwards in an unprecendented collapse. According to the strapline Part 2 of Kasarda’s 2020 aerotropolis status report ‘considers the implications of the coronavidus pandemic on aviation and future development’. The dramatic reduction in air traffic, plummeting by as much as 90 per cent in April 2020 compared to the previous year, is noted and he acknowledges ‘near empty passenger terminals and investment in commercial zones surrounding airports stalling, coming to a ‘virtual standstill’. Yet Kasarda predicts resumption of aviation growth, with air traffic ‘rebounding in the years afterwards to new heights’ and foresees ‘airport cities and their greater aerotropolises taking on ever more importance’.

Kasarda’s confidence that the ‘long term growth trends’ of airports and the aerotropolis will resume in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, as was seen after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003, is unwarranted. SARS affected 26 countries, resulting in over 8,000 cases and 800 deaths. SARS was contained and effectively eradicated. At the time of writing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has reached 5,593,631 and 353,334 people are known to have died from the disease. Only a few countries have not yet reported any coronavirus cases. The number of infections and deaths is on a frightening upward trajectory and the ‘resolutions of the coronavirus pandemic’ Kasarda assumes will occur are not yet on the horizon.

Six aerotropolis-type projects added to socio-environmental conflicts map

Six more aerotropolis-type developments have been added to the Global Map of Aviation-Related Socio-Environmental Conflicts. All the projects – in the USA, Canada, Jamaica, India and China – have met with opposition from affected communities and/or environmental groups. In each case the site, or proposed site, covers a large land area. Launched in July 2019, the map is a joint project by the EnvJustice project and the Stay Grounded network. There are now 67 cases on the map. The new aerotropolis-type additions are listed below. Please click on the links to read the case reports which contain a wealth of information on the environmental and social justice impacts of the aerotropolis projects, the government bodies and firms that are responsible and how affected communities are fighting for their rights.

Northwest Florida Beaches Airport

In the USA, a private landowner stands to benefit from industrial, defence, retail and hotel development on land it owns around Northwest Florida Beaches Airport. Construction of the airport, located in the midst of forested wetlands providing a haven for black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers and the endangered gopher tortoise, caused a decline in in spite of six environmental lawsuits. After the airport opened in 2010 a 404 hectare ‘airport city’ began taking shape on adjacent land. In December 2019 the landowner broke ground on a hotel next to the airport.

Northwest Florida Beaches Airport - aerial view
Aerial view of Northwest Florida Beaches Airport. Photo: Airport of the World, 25th May 2010 https://airportsworld.keypublishing.com/2010/05/25/first-new-us-airport-in-15-years/

Eastgate Air Cargo Facility

In California, a massive air cargo project, Eastgate Air Cargo Facility, is planned in San Bernardino, an area where residents already suffer health problems caused by high levels of air pollution from a concentration of logistics traffic. The site is 41 hectares and the project also entails new taxiways and an aircraft parking apron at San Bernardino Airport, construction of new driveways to the project site and two bridges. Hundreds of people have attended a church gathering and a hearing on the project. Workers, community and environmental groups, united under the banner SB Airport Communities, are campaigning for a ‘community benefit agreements guaranteeing well-paid, secure jobs along with measures to limit air pollution’.

Eastgate Air Cargo Facility, residents at FAA hearing
On 8th August 2019 hundreds of residents contributed their comments at Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) hearing on the air cargo project. Photo: Manny B Sandoval. Source: Inland Empire Community News http://iecn.com/hundreds-of-san-bernardino-residents-speak-out-at-faa-hearing-on-air-cargo-logistics-project-eastgate/

Hamilton Aerotropolis / AEGD

In Ontario, Canada, groundbreaking for Hamilton Aerotropolis, identified by authorities as a strategic priority in 2005 and subsequently re-named Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD), has commenced. A 555 hectare area of productive farmland around Hamilton Airport has been allocated to the project, which was approved in spite of local opposition, over many issues including the costs to taxpayers and availability of alternative sites on brownfield land, sustained over a long period.

Hamilton Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) land use and infrastructure plan
Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) land use and infrastructure plan. Image: City of Hamilton Airport Employment Growth District, Transportation Master Plan Implementation Update https://d3fpllf1m7bbt3.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/media/browser/2017-08-04/aegd-update-transportation-assessment-report-2017.pdf

Vernamfield Aerotropolis and Logistics Hub project

In Jamaica communities are concerned they may face forcible eviction for the proposed Vernamfield Aerotropolis. A letter sent to residents in December 2019 gave residents the impression that the “stage had been set for a massive land grab”. The total site area is 2,428 hectares of land, some of which is among the most fertile in the country and had been used to cultivate sugarcane, is a key component of a broader Logistics Hub plan which spans the southeast coast of the island.

Vernamfield Air Cargo Logistics Facility, architect's impression
Vernamfield Aerotropolis is a key component of the Jamaica Logistics Hub project. Image: Jamaica Logistics Hub, 9th February 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v5hWd9tcLc

Shivdaspura Aero City

In the Jaipur District of Rajasthan, Northern India, residents of 20 villages have organized major protests against plans for an aerotropolis-type development called Shivdaspura Aero City, a ‘greenfield airport’ (on undeveloped land) along with hotels, shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants and a cargo hub. A series of protests by farmers affected by land acquisition began in January 2018. Landholders say they have been left in lurch” unable to develop or sell their land. The site is about 2,100 hectares and approximately 80,000 people are affected by land acquisition.

Protest against Shivdaspura airport project
January 2018 protest against Shivdsapura greenfield airport. Photo: Patrika https://www.patrika.com/jaipur-news/farmers-and-residents-warned-govt-on-greenfield-airport-project-2179532/

Sanya Hongtangwan International Airport, Hainan, China

Scheduled to cover an area of 26 square kilometers on an artificial island Sanya Hongtangwan International Airport is expected to be a gateway to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. In addition to the airport and to support its operations an aviation economic zone, seaport operation area, international aviation CBD (central business district) and industrial zone will be built. Environmental activists raised concerns over damage to wildlife including coral reefs and Chinese white dolphins, listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They achieved a partial victory, halting the airport island reclamation project for more than two years.

Illustration of the proposed new Sanya airport.
Illustration of the proposed new Sanya airport. Image: Handout. Source: South China Morning Post https://www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2119921/china-puts-massive-island-airport-project-hold-over-environmental

 

New mega-airport and ‘Airport City’ in Cambodia triggers land disputes

A plan for a new airport, one of the largest in the world on a 2,600 hectare site in the Kandal District of Cambodia, with an accompanying ‘Airport City’, has reignited one of the country’s fiercest land disputes.

In January the Cambodian government approved a plan for a new airport, one of the largest in the world by land area, on farmland in the Kandal Province, about 30 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Construction of the new airport is anticipated to commence in 2019 and a 21st December 2017 document from the Council of Ministers approved an investment proposal from Cambodia Airport Investment, a joint venture between the State Secretariat of Aviation (SSCA) and Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC). OCIC is a private firm, one of the largest finance, infrastructure and real estate companies in Cambodia, owned by tycoon Pung Khiev Se, with a track record of financing major development projects.

The land area earmarked for the airport project, 2,600 hectares, is more than six times larger than the existing Phnom Penh Airport’s 400 hectares and considerably larger than Beijing Capital Airport, the world’s second busiest passenger airport, with a 1,480 hectare site and handling over 94 million passengers in 2016. Predominantly low-lying agricultural land, the proposed site is on the northwestern shore of a large lake, Boueng Cheung Loung. Preparing the lakeside area of the proposed site for airport construction would require land reclamation and it is thought that there is some overlap with the lake itself.

Proposed site of new Phnom Penh airport and Airporrot City

A map produced by GAAM shows the proposed airport site, based on a modified satellite image published in the Phnom Penh Post. The authors of the article were not certain whether the proposed airport site is state-owned or part of OCIC’s vast land bank. The rectangular area outlined in red is the approximately 700 hectare area allocated for the airport, the adjoining shaded area, approximately 1,900 hectares, is earmarked for development of an ‘Airport City’, described by SSCA spokesman Sinn Chanserey Vutha as a mixed-use development including a commercial centre and residential housing. Chanserey Vutha explained that investors will not be able to generate a profit from the airport itself, so the land for the Airport City is being offered to investors for generating profits from commercial centres and other amenities.

Land rights protests as villagers fear eviction

Announcement of the new airport and associated development sent land prices soaring upwards and within days land for sale signs were hastily erected. Rice fields and lakeside properties in the area that had been valued at between US$20,000 – 50,000 per hectare before announcement of the new airport began selling for as much as US$100,000 or even US$200,000 per hectare. Kandal District villagers were shocked by sudden news of the airport project, along with publication of maps appearing to show the new airport and a massive multi-use development on land they have resided on and near for more than two decades. Their land ownership is disputed by a local ‘oknha’ or tycoon, Seang Chanheng, who has long laid claim to it. A government-aligned media outlet, Fresh News, released documents purporting to show that the land had belonged to Seang Chenheng all along, but even provincial authorities profess uncertainty regarding rights to the land. Regardless of this uncertainty, a large area of disputed land was recently purchased for the airport project, by OCIC in partnership with the SSCA.

Several communes in the Kandal Stung district are wracked by long-running land disputes; the airport project has raked up old tensions and new potential conflicts are looming. Already, there are indications that the authorities are siding with Chanheng’s company and criminalizing protest by villagers residing near the land earmarked for the new development. At the beginning of February over 100 villagers blocked bulldozers from digging a dam on disputed land adjacent to the proposed airport site. Subsequently, Kandal Military Police summoned six villagers to appear for questioning after Chanheng accused them of “incitement” and obstructing her machinery. Oeung Sary, one of the villagers called in for questioning, was undeterred by the order, saying “We will go to meet with the Military Police whether they arrest us or not, because we are fighting for our land…We have no guns or power to fight them with. If they want to jail us, let them jail us.”

On 19th February affected villagers staged a major protest. Over 200 people from four communes gathered at Kandal Provincial Hall to voice their complaints regarding land earmarked for the new airport and seek resolution of the dispute with Seang Chanheng. Oeung Sary remained defiant and determined to stay on the land. Refusing to appear before the military police she said “We will not go to answer. If they want to arrest us, let it be” and accused the government of “bias” in favour of Chanheng’s company. Another villager, Sorn An, said she was one of several villagers who had sold land, in her case belonging to her grandmother, to Chanheng’s company but been underpaid, selling it for $250 per hectare but receiving a fraction this amount, just $25 or $50. She said they had been intimidated during negotiation over the land, that representatives of the company had slammed the table in front of them, threatened them, locked the door and called the police.

Reigniting one of Cambodia’s fiercest land disputes

One of the fiercest and lengthiest land disputes in Cambodia has been reignited by the new airport project. Nearly 300 families living in three villages in the Kandal District, still bearing their Pol Pot era names of Point 92, Point 93 and Point 94, have resided in the area for more than twenty years. Before the residents settled upon it the land was uncultivated. Their ownership of it appears to be legitimate on the basis of a 2001 law that people living peacefully on uncontested land for five years can lay claim to it.

But in 2005 Chenheng’s men began bulldozing the land in order to claim ownership of it. The villagers achieved a rare legal victory in 2006-7 when the Kandal Provincial Court upheld their claim to the land. Some families were issued with temporary land titles, but the official land titles that they were assured of were not issued. Chanheng’s company began clearing the land again in 2009, bulldozing villagers’ farms and a much loved local temple. Company security guards and Military Police fired on villagers who came to protest, wounding three of them. Prime Minister Hun Sen did not respond to a protest outside his house. In 2010 ten villagers attempting to block bulldozers from destroying their ripening rice crops were arrested and charged with land grabbing and incitement in connection with the protests, a move decried as harassment by human rights organizations.

Suddenly, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the disputed land belongs to Min You Cultural Foundation, a company which appeared to be unregistered with no trace of it to be found in Ministry of Commerce records. The Court made this ruling even though it acknowledged “many irregularities” in the sale of the land to this company. Villagers had not heard of the company or the court case or the hearing and were not even called to testify at the hearing.

As land disputes erupt again in the wake of the planned new airport, with villagers fearing they will be stripped of their land and evicted, human rights groups argue that development on the land should cease until land disputes are resolved. Vann Sopathi, business and human rights coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that government and developers should conduct a social and environmental impact assessment of the airport project, and that it should not be permitted to proceed until a mutually acceptable solution is agreed between the company and the affected people.

Villagers are not the only people embroiled in land disputes relating to the new airport; several high-ranking officials own land in the Kandork commune which overlaps with the northernmost portion of the proposed site and a group of them complained of encroachment by an un-named Chinese company. Villagers were hired to guard their plots and one woman said she had climbed onto a bulldozer to prevent men digging her employer’s land.

Cambodia is beset with a multitude of land disputes due to ambiguities over, and  haphazard implementation of, land rights laws. The dispute over the land that is now announced as the site for a new airport is a typical example of tensions between elites with legal claims and villagers who have lived on the land for long periods and whose informal claims are backed by local authorities. Such land disputes are usually settled in favour of people with power and money, as they have the necessary influence and social connections to produce the requisite documentation.

Airport project financing

The projected cost of the new airport is $1.5 billion. Of this sum, OCIC will invest US$280 million and US$120 million will come from public funds, but the bulk of the funding, $1.1 billion, will come from “foreign banks” that at the time of the announcement remained unspecified. But it is clear that at least a significant proportion of the foreign investment will be from China. OCIC signed a “co-operation framework agreement” for the new airport with the state-run China Development Bank. Chinese financing of the new airport is one of 19 agreements to develop Cambodia’s infrastructure, agriculture and health system, signed on 11th January during a visit by Premier Li Keqiang. The deals were signed by various representatives of the Cambodian and Chinese governments in a ceremony lasting less than 10 minutes. Officials did not ask any questions and few details were given about the agreements, even though they are likely to impact heavily on Cambodia’s future development.

At this juncture it is unclear whether the new airport is intended supplement or replace the established Phnom Penh Airport. SSCA spokesman Chanserey Vutha declined to comment on whether the existing airport will be dismantled once the new airport becomes operational. Closing down the existing airport would render the considerable amount of investment in the facility in recent years wasteful and short-sighted. A US$100 million expansion of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports commenced in 2014, extending the passenger terminals and parking lots and enlarging the commercial space with more shops and food and beverage outlets. In December 2017, as plans for the new airport were announced, a new US$26 million arrivals hall was inaugurated at Phnom Penh Airport, incorporating extension of the boarding concourse.

China has also confirmed financing for a new airport in Siem Reap, a resort town most renowned for Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction, the Angkor Wat temple complex. The new airport is to be constructed on a 700 hectare site in the Sotr Nikom district 50 kilometres outside Siem Reap city. Groundbreaking, marking the beginning of construction of the new airport, is imminent. The US$880 million agreement with China’s Yunnan Investment Holding Ltd (YIHL) allowing the state-owned company to manage the new Siem Reap airport under a 55-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession was actually announced in August 2017, with YIHL reportedly having already commenced land clearance. Double the capacity of the existing Siem Reap Airport the new airport will be able to handle 10 million passengers per year.

Road projects

Number 13 in the list of 19 China-Cambodia development deals is an expressway linking two hotspots for Chinese investment: Sihanoukville and the existing Phnom Penh Airport. Sihanoukville, a resort city on the Gulf of Thailand, is a major destination for Chinese property investment, construction boom in recent years, hotels, casinos and thousands of apartments. China has also invested heavily in Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, promoted as Cambodian equivalent of the Shenzhen tech hub, with about 100 Chinese firms already operational.

The Sen Sok district surrounding Phnom Penh Airport is also a magnet for Chinese residential development and investment. The 190 kilometre highway, 4 lanes wide for most of its length, is expected to cost nearly US$2 billion. It could lead to evictions. Ministry of Public Works and Transport spokesman, Va Sim Sorya, said that the expressway would likely infringe upon people’s homes and land, but that it would be the responsibility of China’s state-owned China Communication Construction Co. to provide fair compensation for affected people, with the assistance of the ministry.

The planned new Phnom Penh airport appears to be linked with another road project. An article on the Construction & Property website, which includes a map of the new airport site and a video of the joint Cambodia and China signing ceremony, shows Ringroad Number 3 running through the north of the site. The Cambodian government is building three ring roads around the outskirts of Phnom Penh; construction of the third outer ring road, part of an expressway development masterplan US$9 billion expenditure on 850 kilometres of roads by 2020, is expected to commence in 2018.

Evictions for OCIC ‘satellite city’

By land area, the airport and ‘Airport City’ project is an even bigger project for OCIC than its 387 hectare, Chroy Changvar satellite city. The airport project’s US$1.5 billion budget is comparable with US$1.6 billion for Chroy Changvar, which is now under construction and the largest property development in Phnom Penh. A protracted land dispute with residents from six communities, living on and depending upon the land for years, dates back to 1994 when the government banned construction of homes on the land, designating it for development two years later. In 1998 Prime Minister Hun Sen reassured landowners who had lived on the site for a minimum of five years that they would not be evicted, reiterating this in a 2002 speech. A number of residences were duly excluded from the project site. But 200 families were not so fortunate, in spite of being in possession of official documentation proving their land ownership, and in 2016 were informed they would have to accept the compensation offer.

In February 2016 100 people representing 359 affected families facing eviction for Chroy Changvar petitioned Phnom Penh City Hall in a bid to resolve the land dispute with OCIC. They urged the government to halt alleged housing rights violations, calling either for higher compensation of US$400 per square metre as opposed to OCIC’s offer of just US$15, or to be given back half of their land, not merely 10 per cent of it as was proposed. In April 2016, in spite of the ongoing land dispute, OCIC, protected by 50 security guards, resumed bulldozing to make way for a new road and drainage system to serve the planned city, in spite of two families laying claim to the land being cleared and one resident stating that she had not been compensated. High security echoed 2014 when security guards stopped an attempt by 40 villagers to stop machinery pumping sand onto wetlands, causing water to rush back into the river, destabilizing their homes and putting them at risk of flooding. Protest continued into 2017, in February 40 villagers gathered to demand compensation for land taken for the new city.

Cambodia’s crackdown on democracy and human rights

China is, by far, Cambodia’s biggest trading partner and and its biggest source of foreign aid, investment and tourists. Backing from China has bolstered the Hun Sen government, the world’s longest serving Prime Minister, since 1985, and its investment increases in the face of a crackdown on democracy, freedom of expression and human rights. Cambodia is regressing to its authoritarian past as a political crackdown silences opposition figures, civil society groups and independent media. Critics are slammed with accusations of treason, defamation, collusion with foreign governments and being a threat to national security. Democracy is in a death spiral. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been dissolved, its leader Kem Sokha is in jail awaiting trial on charges of ‘treason’ and 118 senior party members have been banned from political activity for five years. CNRP is the only real opposition party, so Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) will effectively run unchallenged in the upcoming national elections in July. Human Rights Watch warned of the “death of democracy”.

In November 2017 two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists were charged with espionage; still in custody, they could face a 15 year jail sentence if found guilty. They were arrested on the basis of a vaguely worded provision in the penal code criminalizing passing information to a foreign state that could damage national security. Their defence lawyer says the charges against them are baseless and a petition for their release is currently before the Supreme Court. Under the same provision, an Australian film-maker was jailed for flying a drone at an opposition rally. Two former Cambodia Daily reporters were charged with incitement after asking questions during the lead-up to the June 2017 local elections. Both RFA and Cambodia Daily closed down their Cambodia newsrooms after being suddenly issued with enormous tax bills, US$6.3 million with one month to pay in the case of Cambodia Daily, a 24-year old independent newspaper which published its final edition with the damning headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship”. A representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists said that the Cambodian government’s arrests and threats against journalists are a “clear and present danger to press freedom”.

The tightening grip of repression is also restricting activists. Amnesty International called for convictions against two environmental activists who filmed large vessels off Cambodia’s coast suspected of illegally carrying sand for export. Hun Vannak and Doem Kundy, from the NGO Mother Nature, were sentenced to one year in prison plus fines for this exposé aiming to galvanize action to curb the illicit trade on 26th January 2018. Foreign NGOs have been targeted, for example staff of US-based National Democratic Institute were ordered to leave the country, accused of receiving assistance from foreign governments.

As the Cambodian government persecutes citizens and NGOs for collaboration with foreign governments it is bending over backwards to enable China to increase its economic and geopolitical influence. As the 19 agreements for billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment in Cambodia’s infrastructure, including the new airport, were signed Cambodia pledged its support for China’s international goals. Specifically, Cambodia agreed to support China’s claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, where jurisdictional disputes and construction of ports, military installations and airstrips are straining its relationships with several countries in Southeast Asia. China also gains increased access to Cambodian resources, such as oil, gas and timber, and can take advantage of low tax rates and cheap labour. Critics argue that Cambodia is selling itself short and will pay a price for China’s financial support, warning of ending up in its giant ally’s pocket and already losing its voice on regional issues.

Polish government plans mega-airport and aerotropolis

The Polish government has approved a plan for a mega-airport and ‘airport city’ on a 3,000 hectare site. An area of farmland has been identified as a suitable location for the project.

On 7th November, the second day of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn, the Polish government approved a plan to build a new mega-airport, called Poland Central Airport or New Central Polish Airport, handling as many as 100 million passengers per year. The project would result in a a major increase in Poland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Poland, host of the next climate summit, COP24, in December 2018, is already widely regarded as a climate renegade for its continued investment in coal plants, and had the dubious honour of being awarded Fossil of the Day award in Bonn, for its relentless efforts to siphon European Union (EU) funds for clean energy into subsidizing its ageing coal plants. Announcement of a major airport project makes a further mockery of the country’s commitments to address climate change.

The proposed airport site is in Baranów, a rural gmina (administrative district) 40 kilometres to the west of Warsaw, Poland’s capital city. The map below, commissioned by Polski Fundusz Rozwoju (PFR) in 2008 and included in an article published on 8th October 2017, about a meeting on the airport between representatives of the government and Baranów municipality, shows two areas identified as suitable for the airport project: a 3,421 hectare area to the north of the map and a larger 11,338 hectare area to the south. Another variant of this map was included in a 100 page document discussed at the government meeting  which adopted the airport plan, Poland’s biggest infrastructure project in recent years, on 7th November. At this meeting it was confirmed that the planned location of the airport is the Stanisławów village area, near the southern boundary of the area identified as suitable for the project.

Poland Central Airport
Map commissioned by PFR showing areas suitable for Poland Central Airport

A map produced by GAAM shows the villages within the boundaries of the two areas identified as suitable for the airport project and the existing road and rail links.

PolandAirport

A satellite image of the Stanisławów village area, confirmed as the planned location for the new central airport, shows the villages and small parcels of cultivated land that characterize the wider area.

A mega-airport, multi-modal transportation hub and an aerotropolis

The schedule for the new airport is for preparatory works to be complete by the end of 2019, then for construction to be complete and operations to commence by mid-2027. A mega-airport is planned, one of the largest in the world with four runways, initially serving 45 million passengers per year, rising to 100 million, a passenger throughput as high as the world’s busiest airports, almost as high as Atlanta in the US and higher than the current traffic levels at Dubai Airport and Beijing Capital Airport. A multi-modal transportation hub is planned, integrating the new mega-airport with existing and new road and rail infrastructure. Plans for the airport include a rail station and the project is also referred to as Centralny Port Komunikacyjny (CPK), which translates as Central Communication Port. The proposed airport site is between Warsaw and Łódź, Poland’s third largest city, and a high-speed rail line connecting the two cities is planned. The A2 motorway running between Poland’s western and eastern borders is immediately south of the proposed site. Immediately north of the airport site is the rail line between Berlin and Moscow, via Warsaw,  providing a high-speed service that commenced operations in December 2016.

The 3,000 hectare land area for the new airport is far larger than would be required even if the number of passengers meets the projection of 100 million per annum. A 3,000 hectare site is more than 50 per cent larger than the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta in the US which handles 104 million passengers per year. Atlanta Airport’s site covers 1,900 hectares and encompasses substantial commercial development including more than 200 concession outlets such as retail, food and beverages. The oversized proposed land area for Poland Central Airport could be linked to plans for an ‘airport city‘ or aerotropolis. A 1,200 hectare new city is envisaged, with hotels and showrooms. Under the government resolution outlining plans for the new airport legal and infrastructural changes to Baranów would allow for construction of business parks, conference centres, an exhibition centre and office complexes.

A government financed megaproject

The budget for the airport project, combined with the road and rail infrastructure, is estimated at between €7 – 8 billion. Polish citizens will bear the brunt of the enormous cost of the project; the main investor is the government. The 7th November 2017 resolution announcing construction of the airport approved the financing structure as well as the location. An article in the second 2017 edition of Airport Development News, an industry newsletter published by Airports Council International, stated that two state-owned financial institutions, Polish Development Fund (Polski Fundusz Rozwoju – PFR) and Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego (BGK), Poland’s national development bank, would be ‘heavily involved’ in financing the project.

Possibilities for European funding have been considered. The Airport Development News article states that between 75 and 80 per cent of airport construction will be financed by international institutions such as the EIB (European Investment Bank) and EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development). Such investment by the EIB and EBRD is doubtful as state aid rules preclude allocation of EU funds for construction of the airport. But a June 2017 article published by legal analyst firm Lexology stated that EU funds could be tapped for the road and rail elements of the project. The total cost of the rail infrastructure elements of the megaproject complex is estimated to be between €1.89 billion and €2.1 billion, the total cost of roads and highways between €424,000 and €1.6 billion.

Uncertainty over accessing EU funds has led to attempts to secure financing from Chinese sources. The airport was one of the vast transportation and energy infrastructure projects discussed at the May 2017 Summit of the Belt and Road in China, where the President of China repeated assurances about new credit lines by China Development Bank and China Exim Bank, and one of the outcomes was signing of a contract between Polish and Chinese state railways on facilitating container transport. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution supporting construction of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region, is reported to have expressed an interest in co-financing the Poland Central Airport project, if it is in line with the bank’s policy of promoting ‘interconnectivity’ between continents, which would mean that the airport would have to promote passenger traffic with Asia. Potential benefits to Chinese exporters from the airport are evident. The project would support the Polish government’s intention to establish the country as a port of entry for Chinese goods into the EU single market.

Industry experts doubt feasibility of the new airport

Some industry experts are critical of the new airport, doubtful that a new global hub could compete with established European hub airports such as Schiphol and Frankfurt and saying that it would struggle to meet its traffic projections and fail to make a profit. And adoption of Poland Central Airport as a government priority reverses many years of sloughing huge sums of public money into several new small regional airports. A major new hub airport would compete with these regional airports, many of which are already struggling with low passenger levels and unprofitable. Some industry experts warn that opening a new hub airport would be likely to lead to the closure of several existing Polish airports.

Expenditure on a new airport that results in closure of established regional airports would be an astonishing waste of public funds. Between 2007 and 2015 Poland sank at least US$1.58 billion into building and expanding 14 regional airports, with 40 per cent of this funding coming from the European Union (EU). This was highlighted in a report Flights of fancy: A case study on aviation and EU funds in Poland published in 2012 by CEE Bankwatch Network which critiqued the development and operation of small regional airports which were not financially viable, placing a strain on regional and local government budgets, along with allocation of EU funds for rail connections to airports, arguing it should be redirected to serving mobility needs within regions.

Aviation industry consultancy CAPA (Centre for Aviation) reports that Poland Central Airport would replace Warsaw Chopin Airport, the city’s main airport located south of the city with limited room for expansion. Bloomberg also reports that, under the government plan for the new airport, Warsaw Chopin Airport would eventually be shut down. Closing Warsaw Chopin Airport would be a woeful example of enormous waste of public funds and short-sighted planning. A major, multi-million Euro programme of upgrades to Warsaw Chopin Airport, increasing its capacity to 10.4 million passengers per annum, was completed less than a year ago, in December 2016. The terminal was modernized including installation of new check-in desks and an observation deck, a new long-range fuel pipeline constructed and the runways, taxiways and apron have been upgraded. The airport upgrade programme cost €166,760,000 with the EU Cohesion Fund contributing €32,900,000.

Rafal Milczarski, CEO of Poland’s state-owned carrier, LOT Polish Airlines, has said that Warsaw Chopin Airport should be closed down and the land sold to real estate developers to help finance the new airport. This would certainly benefit LOT, a leading proponent of the central airport. Indeed, supporting growth of the national airline is part of the rationale for the project. But the role of LOT in the new airport is a factor in skepticism regarding its viability. LOT is a relatively small carrier with fewer than ten wide-bodied aircraft. A high level of investment would be required for LOT to become one of Central Europe’s main carriers, one of the goals of the the airport project. Critics are of the opinion that the LOT lacks the scale and financial capacity necessary for commercial viability of the new airport project. LOT Polish Airlines also has a history of government intervention to support ailing finances. The carrier was a direct beneficiary of state funds in 2012-2014 when it was rescued from bankruptcy with a €200 million state bailout.

There are serious doubts over the viability of the Poland Central Airport project. The only certainties are vast public expenditure on infrastructure and loss of a large area of farmland.