Beth Jinks, Bloomberg
Bangkok: Thailand reopened Bangkok’s 93- year-old Don Muang airport, six months after it mothballed the facility, to ease congestion aggravated by runway cracks at the capital’s new $4.1 billion (Rs17,884 crore) airport.
Thai Airways International Pcl, the country’s biggest carrier, moved most of its domestic flights to Don Muang today. The airline’s Nok Air Co. unit, One Two Go Airlines Co. and some other budget and charter carriers will also operate from the old airfield. The government plans to run international and domestic flights from both airports.
Operating two airports about 40 kilometers (25 miles) apart may damage Thailand’s tourism and economy because it will be more expensive and less convenient to move cargo and passengers between connecting flights. The government should instead focus on expanding and fixing the new Suvarnabhumi airport, Southeast Asia’s busiest airfield, economist Frederic Neumann said.
“If you splinter air traffic between two airports, you lose all the economies of scale,” said Neumann of HSBC Holdings Plc in Hong Kong. “It just doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint.”
Suvarnabhumi, which means “the golden land” in Thai, is expected to hit its full annual capacity of 45 million passengers within 12 months. The airport, conceived in 1960, was built from a 1994 design initially for international traffic only. A late decision to incorporate domestic flights, and the growth of budget airlines, ensured the facility was busy upon opening.
The new airport has 51 gates, compared with Don Muang’s 56. Capacity was further constrained after the airport was forced to close 11 gates because of runway and taxiway cracks. Underground water and poor-quality construction materials caused the cracks, according to a government investigation. Repairs will likely take months.
“There are some foreign passengers who are still going to Suvarnabhumi airport for some domestic flights and we have buses to transport them between the two airports as an emergency solution,” said Apinan Sumanaseni, president of Thai Air. “There is also shortage of aircraft for connecting flights.”
Thai Air has added about five flights a day to the popular tourist destinations of Phuket, Krabi and Chiang Mai to facilitate connections during the transition, Apinan said.
Don Muang’s reopening should be temporary while repairs at Suvarnabhumi are carried out, HSBC’s Neumann said last month. All resources should be directed toward developing the new airport to its maximum potential of 75 million passengers to give Thailand the benefits of an efficient air hub, he said.
International airlines agree, according to Brian Sinclair- Thompson, Thailand-based general manager for Swiss International, and president of the Board of Airline Representatives Business Association in Thailand.
“Whatever budget they have, it shouldn’t be split between two airports,” Sinclair-Thompson said on 15 February. “We want them to develop Suvarnabhumi to have a midfield terminal and a third runway.”
Airports of Thailand Pcl, which prepared Don Muang for reopening, will spend more than it earns running the facility, said Kulya Pakakrong, the company’s acting president. The airport will initially handle just 140 flights with 18,000 passengers a day, she added.
Some airlines have rejected moving to Don Muang. Thai AirAsia Co., a venture between Thailand’s Shin Corp. and Malaysia’s AirAsia Bhd., will maintain all of its flights at Suvarnabhumi airport in spite of its main rivals moving.
Passengers forced to travel between the two airports to get connecting flights will be inconvenienced by “at least two hours” because of the travel time, extra check-in and baggage delays, according to Sopin Daengteth, chairwoman of the Airline Operators’ Committee, which represents 68 airlines regularly flying to Bangkok.
Airports of Thailand will evaluate Don Muang’s operations for the next six months before deciding on its long-term future, Kulya said 22 March. Regional international flights may be moved “in the future,” she said.
Suvarnabhumi, which opened after three delays, was plagued by cost overruns, corruption scandals and building mishaps throughout its construction. The airfield’s opening was “rushed,” according to Chotisak Asapaviriya, former president of Airports of Thailand who quit 2 February, citing health reasons.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup 19 September, pushed to open Suvarnabhumi by its revised deadline as a “national priority.” The junta that seized power kept to his schedule and opened the facility, reassuring airlines and travelers the airport was ready.