The full-scale launch of Bangkok’s third airport designate has been put on hold again. U-Tapao Rayong-Pattaya International Airport is still suffering teething problems with its 1.7-billion baht expansion originally slated to open last month. The delay is said to be a combination of unfinished autobridges, insufficient public toilets and concerns that domestic and international passengers are not sufficiently separated for immigration and customs purposes.
However, whilst the improvements are ongoing, the new passenger terminal of 20,000 sqm with its supporting facilities is sufficient to handle the relatively small number of passengers arriving and departing. The airport last year handled 710,000 passengers, mostly using Air Asia, and the total for this calendar year is expected to be 1.2 million. The U-Tapao Airport authority confirms that the delayed features will be fully operational by November this year.
The Thai government is keen to turn the Marine-owned complex into a commercial hub to serve as Bangkok’s third airport after Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang, both of which are suffering from overcrowding. U-Tapao is about a 30-minute drive from Pattaya and is in fact nearer to the centre of Bangkok than one of Japan’s premier airports is to Tokyo. Future development is expected to raise the total capacity to 15 million passengers a year, but that ambitious target would require the building of a second 3,500-metre runway and a second terminal.
The development would go hand in hand with the development of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) which would extend up to the Myanmar Dawei seaport area. Among economic activities planned for the EEC are aviation-related industries as well as tourism. U-Tapao is less than an hour away by car from Laem Chabang Port which integrates Thailand’s largest cruise facilities.
U-Tapao Airport was a major military base for the US Air Force during the Vietnamese War. Used as a military air field for the navy, with a runway long enough to accommodate heavily-laden bombing aircraft, it is still used by the Americans for international weather reconnaissance as well as being a major repair and maintenance hub for Thai International. However, in the last 20 years, it has increasingly been used to welcome charter flights and now regular flights for holidaymakers.
Eighty percent of the passengers currently using the airport are boarding and disembarking from the network of the Air Asia Group which now flies to Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Phuket, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Macau, Nanning, Nanchang and Kuala Lumpur. But other carriers are now becoming involved with Thai Lion Air, another low-cost carrier, considering additional potential routes to China.
Observers say that the improvement to transform U-Tapao would be a fast-track rail route connecting the airport to Pattaya, central Bangkok and its principal airports. Although there are plans to do precisely that, they are at the planning, require huge financial investment and are unlikely to see fruition in the medium-term future.