Bangkok's New Airport Finally Opens

Fate hurled as many obstacles as it could to halt the completion of Bangkok's new international airport - corruption scandals, a deadly fire, and even a coup d'etat last week - but finally, the sleek new hub is opening on Thursday.

Built on an area known as "Cobra Swamp," the luckless Suvarnabhumi Airport has taken more than four decades to open its doors to the public.

After a handful of domestic and international flights transferred to the new airport on Sept. 15, it seemed the final days leading to the official opening Thursday would be carried off without a hitch.

Then on Sept. 19, a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had pushed for a timely completion of the airport and touted Suvarnabhumi as one of his administration's crowning achievements.

The coup has stolen the spotlight from Suvarnabhumi, which, prior to the military takeover, was the focus of international and domestic media this month.

Travelers departing on flights that had moved to Suvarnabhumi earlier this month were impressed by the flashy, new building.

"It's impressive," said Adrian Ahlquist, a 51-year-old Australian en route to Singapore. "It's a great improvement on the old one."

The old, overcrowded Don Muang airport comprised three boxy, institutional terminals, totaling 391,316 square meters (4,212,125 square feet). The airport serviced about 60 flights per hour and 36.5 million passengers per year.

Suvarnabhumi - a name conferred by the Thai king pronounced "sue-wanna-poom," which means "Golden Land" - is a little over 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) east of Bangkok in a 563,000-square-meter (6,060,132-square-foot) H-shaped building, with seven concourses extending out of the center terminal building. Thai officials boast it is the largest airport terminal building under one continuous roof.

With two runways, Suvarnabhumi is capable of handling 76 flights per hour and 45 million passengers per year.

"It's an exaggerated statement of how far Thailand has come in terms of its development," said David Keen, a 43-year-old Briton who lives in Bangkok, after landing at Suvarnabhumi from Singapore. "It's clearly an extraordinary statement of how Thailand has moved forward and how it wants to be perceived in the rest of the world."

A 28-kilometer (17-mile) Airport Link under construction will include a direct, 15-minute express train to downtown Bangkok, and another train that will make eight stops throughout the city, taking 30 minutes to the airport. It is scheduled for completion in November 2007.

Expansive and airy, the minimalist Suvarnabhumi is constructed of steel, concrete and lots of glass that lets in natural light while keeping out the tropical heat. The oval-shaped concourse corridors are roofed by glass and white fabric panels.

First conceived in 1960, the high-profile project transformed a swamp where villagers once caught cobras for a living into a fertile ground for politicians and their cronies to profit from shady deals, allegedly ranging from land speculation to bribery and kickbacks from the 155 billion baht (US$3.8 billion; euro3.5 billion) project.

Before construction started, government officials and businessmen with political connections bought large swaths of land and are alleged to have sold it for large profits.

The airport's high-tech baggage scanners - also called bomb scanners - had been the focus of a corruption scandal last year. Their U.S. vendor and the American government pointed out that middlemen had marked up the price of the scanner package by more than 70 percent - to 2.6 billion baht (US$62.8 million; euro52.6 million). Thailand's government has said repeatedly that no officials were involved in wrongdoing.

In January, a fire swept through a catering hall, killing a construction worker, on the same day that officials announced cracks were found in the main runway and that software for the bomb scanners needed some tweaking.

The coup was the final blow after decades of woes.

After taking power, the ruling military leaders said repeatedly that the airport will open on schedule. The military also assigned 800 troops to the airport for 90 days to support the transfer and help with troubleshooting at Suvarnabhumi.

On Saturday, 99 monks and Brahmin priests performed a ceremony to apologize to the spirits of the land for any offenses committed during the construction of the airport, along with the spirits of animals who died on what was once swampland infested with snakes and other creatures.

"It was 45 years - the longest airport project in the world," Airports of Thailand chairman Srisook Chandrangsu told The Associated Press. "It was the fastest construction project - finishing in four and a half years."

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