Unclear airport policy taking a toll on Thai travellers

BANGKOK - The government's indecision over whether Bangkok should have one or two airports has caused vast economic losses for the country, longer waits in the air for passengers, and possibly unfair treatment for rival airlines providing services at the old Don Mueang Airport.

Due to the lack of a clear policy, Suvarnabhumi Airport's Phase 2 expansion project has been delayed from last year. It was designed to be the city's only airport when it opened in late 2006.

Don Mueang at that time was to become an aircraft-repair centre. The Phase 2 project, which got Cabinet approval just last month, is being studied by a project adviser. Construction is most likely to start next year.

Two factors that have resulted in congestion at the airport are the temporary closure of its eastern runway for repairs and the limited capacity of the control tower. In the meantime, the number of flights is mounting rapidly.

According to Airports of Thailand (AOT), Suvarnabhumi has 48 million passengers a year, while its capacity is 45 million. Moreover, the passenger figure is expected to soar to 52 million this year.

"In fact, we experience many peak-hours slots from 10am every day. The airport's two runways can handle 76 flights per hour or 1,824 flights per day. But the control tower has the capacity to handle only 60 flights per hour or 1,440 flights per day," said Somchai Sawasdeepon, director of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

However, Somchai said that closing Suvarnabhumi's eastern runway has little impact in terms of delayed flight landings, as the temporary changes only affect flights taking off.

"The main point is the larger number of flights using Suvarnabhumi Airport in addition to the limited capacity of the airport's aeronautical radio and technology," said Somchai, adding that the airport is fixing this problem.

To follow the "single" airport policy, the post-coup government in 2006 tried hard to relocate all carriers based at Don Mueang to Suvarnabhumi.

Without any incentives, Nok Air volunteered to stay, except during the flooding period last year, when it temporarily moved to Suvarnabhumi. Don Mueang then was almost two metres deep in floodwater.

For Nok Air, Don Mueang is more suitable than Suvarnabhumi as it provides point-to-point services.

However, the government wanted to make Don Mueang a centre for charter flights.

The "dual" airport policy was also a non-starter as the extension line of the Airport Rail Link between Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang would not be easy to accomplish in a short period.

What the government can do to wipe out the congestion problem as quickly as possible is to make some flights disappear.

Even if the eastern runway repairs are completed on August 9 as scheduled, the congestion problem will remain.

The best choice at this time is to relocate all low-cost carriers to Don Mueang. By doing this, it can buy time as long as the Phase 2 project is completed in 2017, enabling the airport to handle 15 million more passengers.

Thai AirAsia recently agreed to relocate its operation to Don Mueang, effective October 1. Thirteen other airlines are in talks with AOT. If successful, this would help reduce by 8 or 9 million passengers a year the load at Suvarnabhumi, according to AOT.

Based on a total of 850 flights a day at 150 flights per day ((??)) operated by Thai Air Asia, if being moved, this will help Suvarnabhumi reduce congestion by 17 per cent.With the government's relocation policy to Don Mueang, AOT was asked to offer those airlines who move big discounts of as much as 95 per cent on landing and parking fees for three months this year, and between 10-30 per cent on a sliding-scale basis from 2013-2015.

The discounts are not for those who are carriers operating at Don Mueang, where Nok Air and Orient Thai airlines are operating.

Not surprisingly, the government has tried to tell the world that it manages Suvarnabhumi as a "single" airport, which is positioned as a flight hub serving full-service and connecting flights, while Don Mueang is positioned to serve low-cost carriers and point-to-point flights.

Although Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government has tried hard to resolve the airport congestion problem, this passes the suffering to other parties in one way or another.

First, AOT would lose income, though it would be compensated with possibly higher airport fees, meaning that the government is pushing this cost to passengers at a later time. Being a listed company, the firm's shareholders should not be happy with it.

Secondly, landing delays at Suvarnabhumi have caused passengers to waste at least 15 minutes in the air. Daily, about 120 flights were delayed during June 11-26, doubled from 60 flights on normal days.

Lastly, a possibly unfair situation between the newcomers and current occupants at Don Mueang looks set to begin.

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