Personnel from the China International Earthquake Rescue Team arrive at the Yushu Batang Airport at 8 pm on Wednesday. The airport reopened at noon on Wednesday to help rescue workers and supplies quickly reach the disaster-hit zone. Liao Pan / China News Service
BEIJING - Yushu Batang Airport, 30 km away from the epicenter of the quake in Jiegu town, reopened at noon on Wednesday, providing a fast route for rescue workers and supplies to arrive in the region, a civil aviation spokeswoman said.
The airport's role in the rescue effort is expected to demonstrate the importance of building more small airports in remote regions of China, despite their limited economic potential, officials said.
A magnitude 7.1 earthquake hit Yushu county in Qinghai province at 7:49 am on Wednesday, cutting the airport's power supply and damaging its communication facilities, though no casualties were reported at the airport, according to a spokeswoman with the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).
Using diesel-fueled power generators and radio signals, the airport managed to resume operations by noon for rescue flights.
By Wednesday night, the first rescue plane by China Eastern Airlines had arrived at the airport, while two other planes were en route to Yushu and were expected later that evening.
"Yushu airport, though small in size, is expected to play an important role in the earthquake rescue work," the CAAC spokeswoman said.
After Changdu Bangda Airport and Lhasa Airport in Tibet autonomous region, Yushu Airport is the third highest airport in China, with an altitude of 3,950 meters.
It went into operation last August, with two flights a week between Yushu and Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi province, via Xining. Only a few modified civil airplanes with CAAC approval can land at the plateau airport, due to the altitude.
As a result of the earthquake, all commercial flights were suspended as of Wednesday, the spokeswoman said.
The airport is expected to only handle rescue flights in the following days, providing a faster way for supplies and rescue workers to arrive in the area, an expert said.
"The incident could demonstrate the irreplaceable role of small airports in emergencies like earthquakes," said Wang Jian, secretary-general of the China Civil Airport Association.
He said small airports have been under scrutiny by the media, as most of them receive few passengers and lose money.
With one runway and a capacity to handle 80,000 passengers by the year 2015, Yushu airport is small, but it can effectively cut the time to travel the 814 km between Jiegu town of Yushu and Qinghai's capital of Xining from a 15-hour drive to 70 minutes.
Railway or road transport would be a slower way to move supplies and rescuers, and, once one point is blocked, the whole line becomes useless, Wang said.
"Small airports may lose money in general, but their strategic importance cannot be gauged by money," he said.
He suggested the government, at both central and local levels, should subsidize small airports to ensure their airworthiness, as well as their pivotal role in disaster relief.
China currently has 166 civil airports, with plans to build 240 airports by the year 2020 and another 300 by 2030, CAAC chief Li Jiaxiang told a conference in January.
By then, he said, the airports will be expected to serve 95 percent of the total population, an increase from the current 62 percent.
(China Daily 04/15/2010 page6)