New Thailand Airport Seen As Regional Contender

The strategic location of Suvarnabhumi Airport at the heart of Indo-China is a major advantage for Thailand, with India and China being the key drivers of growth in passenger travel within the region.

"Thailand is a big, important country, and it has the potential to be a strong regional hub. Its close proximity to Laos, [Burma], Cambodia and Vietnam can clearly attract airlines from Europe and Southeast Asia," International Air Transport Association spokesman Anthony Concil told The Nation on the sidelines of Iata's annual general meeting in Paris.

He said Bangkok and Singa-pore would obviously feel the ripple effect of increased air travel from China and India.

He foresees Suvarnabhumi having lower airport charges than Hong Kong and Singapore, which is an incentive to more airlines to fly into the Kingdom.

"I don't see why Suvarnabhumi Airport should not be an important regional hub if it has an excellent service hub, gives value for money [low airport charges], offers economic incentives and has attractive retail outlets to boost non-aviation revenue," Concil said.

"Hong Kong, Singapore, Incheon and Bangkok are positioning their respective airports as secondary hubs to Chinese, Indian and North American destinations."

At a time when the cost of jet fuel has skyrocketed and airlines are increasingly seeking to minimise travelling time by reducing the time spent on longer routes, Suvarnabhumi Airport will certainly pose a challenge to Changi Airport, which is two hours further away from Thailand.

To counter the impending challenge from the Kingdom, Singa-pore has appointed Las Vegas Sands to build and operate its first casino to attract Asian gamblers and boost tourism revenues. It is projected to make more than US$1 billion (Bt38.3 billion) a year from casino revenue alone.

The $3-billion casino, on a waterfront site, will become an emblem of the city-state. The casino is to be more of a resort, as an art and science museum will be included, which will take up more space than the gaming area, a strategy to lure non-gamblers and family trippers.

Singapore has already invited bids for a second casino project.

"The Singaporean government is gearing up to attract carriers from India and China to boost volume at its low-cost terminal. The casino and a sound business environment and commercial laws conducive to multinationals will attract more traffic to Changi," said Pridi Boonsue, director-general of the marketing and support department of Thai Airways International.

Singapore's low-cost-carrier terminal, which started operation on March 26, is expected to attract 2.7 million passengers per year. At the moment, the budget terminal serves just one airline, Tiger Airways.

However, Concil cautioned that the Airports Authority of Thailand (AOT) had to ensure that all systems at Suvarnabhumi Airport were in place before its opening in order to avoid unnecessary operational problems.

"The decision to build the new airport was the right decision at the right time as Thailand is at the cornerstone of the industry. Thailand is building its first [major] new airport for 60 years.

"We've seen what works and what doesn't. The Iata Airport Consultative Committee [ACC] has made suggestions to the AOT, and it takes at least six months to test everything from gate control, baggage and cargo handling to the information-technology systems," he said.

The ACC offers consultation to airport authorities around the world on how to handle issues such as the length of runways, the desirable number of retail shops within terminals, boarding gates and passenger flow.

"Since the new airport is using IT to link everything, there is a need to conduct vigorous testing. They don't want to repeat the mistakes of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur," Concil said.

When the new Hong Kong International Airport opened for commercial operation in 1998, it encountered failures in both its cargo and gate systems. The new Kuala Lumpur International Airport faced baggage problems.

"It was a costly and embarrassing experience for Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. Perishable goods expired. The image of the airports was affected," Concil added.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, which will eventually have two runways, will replace the 60-year old Bangkok International Airport, commonly known as Don Muang.

The seven-storey terminal, one of the largest in the world, will cover the equivalent of 100 football fields and be able to handle 45 million passengers a year during the initial stage, or 9,000 per hour, through its 360 check-in counters.

It will be able to simultaneously berth 120 aircraft, including five of the world's largest passenger planes, the new Airbus 380.

When the final phase is complete, the airport will be able to accommodate 100 million passengers a year.

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