Thai Life


A Tale of Two Airports

Once upon a time many decades ago Don Muang Airport was constructed just north of Bangkok. For many faithful years it served the country of Thailand well as arguably the central hub of south east Asia's airports. However running parallel to this was the concept of using another site east of Bangkok for a second airport, the plan was half heartedly discussed to begin with and having been put on the back burner Don Muang International continued as the primary international airport for Thailand. Then in the late 1990s the newly elected Thai Rak Thai government party stormed to power, one of their pet projects was the new airport. Naming it Suvarnabhuri International (a name many westerners struggle to remember let alone say!) the green light was officially given to begin building the new airport.

One rumour is that the Thai Airforce controls Don Muang Airport (adjacent to the Airforce base) and held plenty of clout with those in power. Since their power and influence has waned and the Army's grown the plan for building Suvarnabhuri took fruit, circumventing any upgrades on the Airforces 'Turf'.

Now some justification could be granted at this point. Don Muang (DM) Airport, while it still oozes charm in a 1970s kind of way was fast reaching capacity as increased passenger numbers and airline traffic rose. Also compared to other countries in south east Asia, DM was far from cutting edge, it could only boast of two runways and passenger processing was straining under increased numbers. The new airport would far surpass all of this and more with 'state of the art' design features, bomb-detectors, a world record breaking control tower and an eventual rail / high speed link into central Bangkok. and in short the decision was made that no upgrade or expansion would take place to the existing airport. This too is, in comparison of DM, is bittersweet for the Skytrains foundation pillars still line the route north out of Bangkok towards DM.

By the 2003 construction was in full swing but again and again the projected deadline was extended until mid-2006 was set as the completion date. Despite months of speculation in the press that DM was to remain open it was then announced that Don Muang Airport was to close when the new one opened and later it was announced that DM airport should be converted to a novelty shopping mall. This was a move that shocked some, including many westerners. Normally it is a valuable asset having a secondary airport as this can be used for local domestic flights while the primary airport operates for international flights. There it could be argued that there is some wisdom in keeping all their eggs in one basket however, as domestic / international transfers and vice versa all under one location means no traveling between airports. (DM and SV are over 15 miles apart).

In mid-2006 the new airport opened amid much fanfare in the Thai press and celebration from the TRT government. The response from actual users of the airport was a different story. The interior style of the airport is some kind of a cross between techno-industrial and a vast warehouse. The size effect is impressive as the ceiling and support frames stretch off into the distance. It has the first impression of an unfinished building, the bare concrete support frames are undressed nor rendered. The check-in areas are small when compared with the projected processing capacity on paper; the actual number isn't available but as a comparison they measure the same as Don Muang (which is considered outdated!). Another major criticism is the distinct lack of toilets. Passengers arriving off an international flight will find there are less than ten toilets for four hundred or so people. At the gate boarding zones for departing passengers there are non-whatsoever. Most of the seats are considered to be the most uncomfortable in living memory as the solid steel metal design is without any padding, sitting on the floor is considered more comfortable!

Like a nuclear chain reaction more and more faults began to 'appear', cracks were discovered (and continue to be found), many docking modules which connect to the airliners have been found with structural faults, some seriously. That most of these were discovered after the bloodless coup which toppled Thaksin and the TRT party has raised serious questions about the airport. The key driving force behind nearly the entire project was the TRT party, namely Thaksin Shinawata. At the time of writing the most recent revelation is that Don Muang is now going to be re-opened to take over the domestic flights schedule out of Suvarnahuri and that more structural blunders have been discovered.

Chiefly that the airport is on swampland and piles weren't used to build up the foundations prior to concreting. Independent investigators are continuing there investigations, only time will tell the future of this potential 'White Elephant' of airports...

Farang columnist Johnny BThis section is hosted by our resident columnist Johnny B. who has been living in Thailand for seven years now and currently is based out of Bangkok.

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