Indonesian govt rushes to finish new airport ahead of Nusantara launch

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inspects on June 5, 2024, the location to be used for the commemoration of Indonesia’s 79th Independence Day celebration in the Nusantara Capital City (IKN), the country’s future capital city located in East Kalimantan. - Jakarta Post/ANN

JAKARTA (Jakarta Post/ANN): The government is rushing to finish a new airport for the Nusantara Capital City (IKN) ahead of the city’s inauguration, but experts warn the breakneck pace could compromise safety and quality.

Nusantara Airport, initially designated to serve only important guests of the state, is slated for completion by Aug. 1 with a trial run in July, according to Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi, just in time for an inauguration that will coincide with Independence Day on Aug 17.

However, the operational certification is still outstanding. “This is indeed a rush job,” Indonesian Transportation Society (MTI) deputy chairman Djoko Setijowarno told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

“[But] quality control should not be violated, even though the construction process is racing against time and high rainfall.” Technical limitations, particularly with regard to runway paving, require time for proper settling, he explained.

Rushing these stages could lead to future issues and costly repairs, similar to highway projects that deteriorated shortly after being inaugurated. “If [the airport’s construction] can’t be expedited, I suggest to just say so.

The President’s activities [in the IKN] aren’t so frequent that we need to force this and risk problems later,” said Djoko, who has visited the airport site several times.

Nusantara Airport, construction of which began in November last year, sits on a 347-hectare plot and features a 7,350-square-meter terminal.

While the originally planned 3,000-meter runway could accommodated large commercial aircraft, the current focus is on completing a shorter, 2,200-m runway by July to meet the August deadline, according to Danis Hidayat Sumadilaga, who heads the IKN infrastructure development task force.

The completed airport will have the capacity to accommodate three large commercial aircraft, one small aircraft and three helicopters.

“It is promised that work on the runway will reach 2,200 meters by July 2024, and that the work will be 100 percent complete by the end of December 2024,” Danis was quoted as saying by news agency Antara on April 21.

The project, estimated to cost Rp 4.3 trillion (US$261 million), is funded entirely from the 2023 state budget. Aviation expert Gerry Soejatman considers the timely completion and certification “very possible”, given the airport's limited scope.

Since it was not designed for commercial use, only essential public facilities need to be operational initially. This focus on a smaller, noncommercial airport allows for faster construction than what would be required for a full-fledged commercial facility.

“The airport is not designed for commercial flights, and investors saw no guaranteed return on investment,” Gerry told the Post on Thursday. However, this might not necessarily spell the end for the airport’s commercial viability.

“There’s no firm stance from the government that the airport will be VVIP only,” he added, using an acronym for individuals deemed very important. “We know the IKN needs private investment for its development.”

Public Works and Housing Minister Basuki Hadimuljono previously noted the possibility of Nusantara Airport becoming a commercial facility in the future, as reported by Detik.

Commercial viability in question

Experts say uncertainty regarding the new capital's role, specifically whether it will serve solely as an administrative center or also as an economic hub, has created doubts about the airport’s viability for commercial flights.

Djoko of MTI advised against using Nusantara Airport for commercial purposes, emphasizing its initial purpose to serve guests and the fact that it only has one runway, akin to Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport in Jakarta.

Aviation expert Alvin Lie stressed that Nusantara Airport was not designed to handle intensive public traffic and logistics, making its operational and maintenance costs unfeasible for commercial use.

“It was built to accommodate a limited number of high-ranking officials with low utilization rates,” Alvin said on Thursday. “Nusantara’s design as an administrative hub does not support commercial viability.”

Gerry highlighted the lack of a clear designation for Nusantara as either an economic or administrative hub: “If the plan is to create a major metropolitan city, why build such a small airport? This just confuses investors.”

Investors, he pointed out, looked at potential traffic, possibilities for expansion and financial returns, all of which remain unclear for Nusantara Airport.

The government had initially hoped to fund Nusantara Airport through a public-private partnership (PPP) scheme, according to Gerry, but the lengthy process and noncommercial nature of the airport deterred investors.

“We need clarity on what [Nusantara] aims to become, because uncertainty is deterring investor interest in airports across Indonesia.”

The Transportation Ministry did not respond to the Post’s request for comment, while the IKN Authority declined to comment.

Nearby airports stand ready

Experts have suggested that, if the future capital remains solely an administrative hub as initially designed, passengers should use existing commercial airports in nearby cities, such as Sultan Aji Muhammad Sulaiman Sepinggan International Airport in Balikpapan and Aji Pangeran Tumenggung Pranoto Airport in Samarinda.

“The important thing is [to have] quick access to airports,” emphasized Djoko, advising the government to improve infrastructure to connect these airports with the IKN’s city center.

Gerry concurred, noting that expansion plans were more feasible for these neighboring airports.

“Sepinggan Airport is closer to Nusantara's city center, [but] it is already busy and has expansion limitations. Pranoto Airport, on the other hand, has significant expansion potential but is slightly farther,” he said.

However, Gerry expressed skepticism about Balikpapan’s potential to serve 30 million passengers annually, as may be necessary depending on the city’s development. “That's half of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport’s 2022 figure, which took decades to achieve.” - Jakarta Post/ANN

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