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Old 09-26-2006, 01:49 PM   #1
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For anyone going to Thailand in the near future, this article may be of interest:

Thai Airport Spreads Its Wings

Opening Comes Despite Cloud
Of Military Coup, Carriers' Concerns
By BRUCE STANLEY
September 27, 2006

BANGKOK, Thailand -- After decades of planning and years of delays, Thailand's gleaming new $4 billion international airport is finally set to open tomorrow, in spite of last week's military coup and the complaints of some airlines that the facility still isn't up to scratch.

Suvarnabhumi Airport is the world's newest mega-airport, a high-stakes bid to make Bangkok an elite hub for global air travel and to boost the Thai economy in the face of stiff opposition from Asian rivals.

Built on a marsh known as Cobra Swamp, 25 kilometers east of the capital, Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi (pronounced "Su-Wana-Poom") boasts the world's biggest passenger terminal under a single roof and the tallest control tower. Its footprint is six times as large as congested Don Muang Airport, the country's current international gateway, which will close to all but charter and possibly military flights.

Almost 39 million passengers took off and landed at Don Muang last year, making Bangkok the fourth-busiest passenger hub in Asia. But Suvarnabhumi could shatter these parameters, with plans for expansion that could handle as many as 100 million visitors a year, roughly the same number as at John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark airports combined.

Although Suvarnabhumi began handling some flights for flag carrier Thai Airways International and low-cost airline Jetstar Airways on Sept. 15, it wasn't to start normal operations until a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt and Mumbai touched down on one of its two runways at 3 a.m. today.

Suvarnabhumi, which means "The Golden Land," is the latest in a series of mega-airports to have opened in Asia. Indeed, the desire to outshine the competition was a key concern of the airport's planners in the 1990s. Sprawling airports have opened in recent years in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Incheon, South Korea and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as each city has sought to boost its profile and competitive edge as an aviation hub.

Airports like Suvarnabhumi, with its vaulting ceilings of metal latticework and tent-like fabric, entail enormous costs that have taken a toll on airlines, which have paid increased user fees to help finance them. Given today's hypercompetitive market, many airlines are loath to absorb the financial hit. "They're not interested in Taj Mahals. They're interested in functioning airports," says consultant Peter Harbison of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in Sydney.

Some airlines worry that Suvarnabhumi's history of construction problems and alleged corruption portends a troubled debut. First envisioned in 1960, the airport was to have opened originally in 2000. Four years later, as delays mounted, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and several cabinet ministers spent a night camping out at the construction site to try to embarrass contractors into working faster.

In July, the U.N.-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization identified scores of concerns at the airport, including inadequate lights and markings, according to a report leaked to Thai news media. Airports of Thailand PCL, the Bangkok-listed operator of Suvarnabhumi, didn't dispute the findings and has rectified many of the shortcomings, says a person knowledgeable about the matter.

Still, a rapid train line connecting the airport to central Bangkok won't be ready until 2008, forcing passengers and employees on to the surrounding area's already crowded roads.

"I think there are going to be some tremendous transitional problems," says Jim Eckes of Indoswiss Aviation, a Hong Kong consultancy.

Meanwhile, Thailand's auditor-general, Jaruvan Maintaka, said last week that she was completing a report on alleged wrongdoing by government officials in the 2005 purchase of high-tech bomb scanners for Suvarnabhumi.

A wholesale changeover of flights from one airport to another is never easy, but many of the 70-plus airlines involved in this transfer complain that Thai authorities have pushed them to meet an unrealistic deadline. Their chief concern is the computerized baggage handling system, which Brian Sinclair-Thompson, head of the Board of Airline Representatives in Thailand, describes as "woefully inadequate."

Senior executives at Airports of Thailand declined to comment in detail for this article, in the wake of last week's coup in which a military junta replaced Mr. Thaksin. However, a spokeswoman for Airports of Thailand said the company was confident that the baggage handling system would function well. About 800 Thai soldiers will be standing by to carry passengers' suitcases by hand, just in case.

"That is our emergency plan," says Suwat Wanisubut, a senior adviser at the National Economic and Social Development Board.

When Hong Kong opened an international airport at Chek Lap Kok in 1998, the debut was marred by severe delays in cargo processing; today, all that is forgotten, and Chek Lap Kok is seen as a resounding success. One thing in Suvarnabhumi's favor is that it has turned for technical advice to Germany's Munich Airport, which pulled off an almost flawless changeover in 1992.

However, some airlines are still negotiating leases for office space at Suvarnabhumi, and others lack room for passenger lounges and cargo and maintenance operations.

Late last week, workers dozed on sheets of cardboard on the floor of an empty concrete shell designated as a future lounge for Qantas Airways. Much of the airport was a dusty construction site. Carpenters were installing shelves in retail shops on the departure floor, and the cluttered concourse echoed with the grating of power tools.

Thai Airways, which will make its new home at Suvarnabhumi, may have had the toughest transition of any carrier leaving Don Muang. It had to move its entire business, including catering and ground-handling operations, and drive 1,200 vehicles to the new airport in the wee hours of opening day, says Chokchai Panyayong, vice president of Thai Airways' project development department.

Certainly Suvarnabhumi's success will be crucial to Thailand's strategy of grabbing a bigger share of the passenger and air-cargo business in Asia. Not only does the Thai economy depend heavily on international tourism, but Bangkok needs a larger, more modern airport to attract passengers who stop over and change planes while journeying between Asia and cities in Europe and North America.

As a result of the move to Suvarnabhumi, Mr. Chokchai of Thai Airways expects the carrier's passenger volumes to increase 10% annually, compared with the 7% average annual growth rate it has clocked over the past decade.

But some analysts argue that Suvarnabhumi's initial capacity for 45 million passengers a year may already be too tight.

"Because it's taken so long in the birth process, it's already undercapacity," says Mr. Harbison, the Sydney consultant. "It's going to immediately be overcrowded."

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Old 09-26-2006, 07:00 PM   #2
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Thanks for the article...and I hope it all is running smoothly by the time I get to Bangkok in January!
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Old 09-27-2006, 03:14 AM   #3
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ohhh thanks for the article. might have to look into a bangkok trip soon just to check out the new airport!
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Old 06-06-2007, 11:43 PM   #4
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25km east of Bangkok, huh? The taxi and tuk tuk drivers must be wetting themselves with glee.
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