Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kansai Airport : Technical Marvel, Economic Disaster


No matter how young or old one is, it is always fascinating to watch flowing river from the window of a running train. And if this train ride takes 3.5 Kms into the sea, it would be nothing else but a breathtaking experience. If one were to take a flight from Kansai airport, one can have this experience by taking a train ride from mainland Osaka bay to Kansai Airport in Japan.

If this train ride was anything spectacular, there is something more in store as you usher into magnificent super structure of Kansai International airport. The design of this airport is a masterpiece for both architecture and engineering. This four story 1.7 km building has no edges but smooth contours – in fact same contours of the roof are used to guide the flow of air in the building, thus eliminating the needs for vents inside the building. No obstructions in whatever form make a visitor navigate from anywhere. The airport resembles a bird with outstretched wings. Standing at the atrium of this airport, overseeing behemoth of glass structure is nothing but an awesome experience. Huge glass pane windows over high ceiling with abundance of natural diffused light creates an expansive openness. There are no walkways, entries, or exits like any traditional airport. At night with neon bulbs all over, this structure transforms into a magical masterpiece.

It’s hard to imagine that this structure stretching alongside 3,500 meter runway is built right over the sea supported by 900 pillars whose even height can also be adjusted by engineers. The design had its share of hiccups when the structure sunk by over 8 meters, while the initial allowance was for 5.80 meters. However, this has been corrected since then - albeit at the cost of few billion dollars. Within four months of its opening, the design also passed its decisive test when it had to endure of 6.7 Richter scale notorious Kobe earth quake whose center was just 20 kms away and killed 6,000 people on mainland.

The décor inside the airport matches the grandeur. The waiting lounge has reclining padded seats with no armrest, like a cozy first class sleeping couch. Airport has wireless internet connectivity. Overall, Kansai airport matches the hallmark of design, luxury, and comfort.

It is ironical that this engineering marvel also faces a blot of a commercial disaster. Kansai Airport concept was conceived during heady days of Japanese economy in 1980’s unfortunately economy didn’t keep its momentum. So was the case with an assumption that Kansai would become a hub for connecting traffic between Asia and other continents. But emergence of other Asian airports like Shanghai, Seoul, and Hong Kong that offered cheaper landing rates to Kansai took away the competitive edge of Kansai. The result was an abysmal underutilization with fewer airlines plying Kansai and resultant thin passenger traffic. International passenger eroded from 12 million in year 2000 to 8 million in 2003. So is the case with domestic passengers, who opted to use Osaka city airport. Although touted as 24 hour airport, after 10 pm, whatever few duty free shops present pull down their shutters to make this place look desolate despite all its grandeur.

Needles to say, Kansai airport is in financial throes. Stupendous investment of 15 billion dollars is making Kansai airport reeling under $560 million dollars per year in interest alone. With spiraling cost and interest, it is unlikely that Kansai airport would recover its cost even by 2035.
It is sad that the airport that created new benchmark in architecture, engineering is no longer a busy airport that it should have been. Nevertheless, it is still a global masterpiece construction that is basking in international glory and has been awarded as “Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium'' by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is no wonder, Kansai Airport still ranks among the top five best airports in the world as it celebrates 11th anniversary on September 4.

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