Vietnam approves controversial $21.5 billion mega airport

HANOI - Lawmakers in Vietnam voted Thursday to build a controversial new US$16 billion (S$21.5 billion) airport near Ho Chi Minh City, as the country vies to become one of the world's busiest aviation hubs.

The project aims to ease airport congestion in Vietnam's business hub and cater to an ambitious 100 million passengers and five million tonnes of cargo a year by 2050.

"Building the international Long Thanh airport has been approved by the National Assembly with 86 per cent of votes in favour," the communist state said in a posting on its government website, adding the new airport would be built around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the city.

But the plan, first mooted decades earlier, has sparked vigorous public debate in the authoritarian country, with many questioning why the existing airport could not be expanded.

The problem appears to be a large golf course, owned by Vietnam's powerful military, that sits right next to the existing Tan Son Nhat Airport. The government has ruled out expanding onto this land.

"It is very unreasonable to allow a golf course in the airport while it lacks parking lots for airplanes," Le Trong Sanh, former head of the Tan Son Nhat Airport flight management section and a vocal critic of the Long Thanh airport plan, has told state media. He instead supports expanding the existing site.

According to the Airports Corporation of Vietnam, the city's international airport already serves 20 million passengers a year and will hit the maximum capacity of 25 million passengers by 2017.

If all goes to plan, the proposed airport in neighbouring Dong Nai province would turn Vietnam into a regional aviation hub.

"The project's funding will come from the state budget, the aviation sector, Official Development Assistance, enterprises and other sources," the government said in its statement.

In recent years the current airport has suffered from a string of technical glitches including a power outage in November 2014 that left the control tower without radar for more than an hour.

Last week an 18-minute radio disruption in air traffic control resulted in six flights being delayed and one plane diverted to another airport.

The reason for the disruption remains unclear, the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam said.

Lawmakers have called for the Long Thanh project, long mired in debates over feasibility and funding, to avoid "wastefulness and losses" and for transparency at all stages of the construction.

Atlanta in the United States was the world's busiest airport in 2014 with more than 96 million passengers, followed by Beijing in second place, London's Heathrow in third and Haneda in Tokyo coming fourth, according to an Airports Council International statement in March.