In spite of much optimistic talk, the construction of a new airport at U Tapao near Sattahip equipped with a second runway is unlikely to be completed until 2020 at the earliest. In 2009 it was announced that a new 25,000-square-meter terminal building would be built, able to handle 1,500 passengers per hour as opposed to a few hundred at present, together with new parking lots, fuel depots, fire-fighting equipment, x-ray machines and lavish landscaping.
However, the 200-million-baht development was stalled by the government for financial reasons in 2011, and work on the reconstruction and facilities is only just beginning on site. When completed–next year at the earliest, the airport’s capacity will increase from around half a million passengers a year to three million. The demand is certainly there both to extend Pattaya’s air links with other Thai cities, including Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and to bring in more passengers on charter and scheduled flights from Russia, China, South Korea and other Asian countries.
Analysts say that the civil expansion of U Tapao, which is overseen by the Thai Navy, is overdue even now as there is a real need for a third airport in central Thailand to reduce the strain on Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang. The expectation that Thailand will see 24 million foreign arrivals in 2013 as well as booming domestic travel is causing a rethink in government circles about the role of Thailand as a transit air hub.
The onset of the ASEAN Economic Community in late 2015, which will eventually create a free-trade area amongst the 10 member countries, is expected to spur the need for even more passenger air facilities as inter-state migration for both work and social reasons begins to climb in the first few years. Additionally, countries outside the ASEAN framework, notably India and China, are expected to provide four million tourists to Thailand this year alone. This estimate doubles the number arriving just two years ago.
The Department of Civil Aviation in coming months will conduct a feasibility study into the construction of a second runway at U-Tapao airport. However, the plan appears contingent upon construction of a high-speed train linking Bangkok with Pattaya, U Tapao and Rayong. Some specialists think a second runway at U Tapao would be preferable and cheaper than a third runway at congested Suvarnabhumi airport where there is strong opposition from environmental groups fearing yet more noise pollution.
But the high-speed train, although agreed in principle, is still a dream. It has not even been agreed yet if the new track will be alongside the old rails and what will be the precise stations en route.
As the Japanese experience with bullet-trains has shown, this method of transport is popular with customers but extremely expensive to build and maintain. Transport specialists are warning the government about the cost implications and the hundreds of billions of baht required for a long-term rail future.
Assuming the high speed train is actually built, there seems no chance of it being operational before the end of this decade at the earliest. Although U Tapao seems set to receive more passengers in the medium future than at present, it seems unlikely that the airport can play a major role in transforming the country’s commercial and civil communications in the next few years. The cost implications are truly gigantic.