Thailand to double Bangkok airport capacity, starting with tiny U-Tapao

In a bid to rival Singapore as Southeast Asia’s main aviation hub, Thailand is planning to more than double the passenger capacity of airports in the greater Bangkok area.

The surprising plan involves transforming tiny U-Tapao airport, a former military air base 100km southeast of Bangkok, and known to most people as the gateway to the resort of Pattaya.

Now, U-Tapao handles just 300,000 charter passengers a year, but the plan is to make it a full blown airport capable of handling 60 million people.

The work will be carried out in phases over a period of 20 years, Thailand’s transport minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith told Nikkei Asian Review.

In addition to U-Tapao, the existing Suvarnabhumi airport will be doubled in capacity, from 45 million people to 90 million, and Don Mueang airport would go from 30 million to 40 million.

U-Tapao airport presently has two modestly sized terminals

In all, if these plans go ahead, the greater Bangkok area’s handling capacity would rise from 75.3 million people a year now to 190 million people.

That would knock Singapore off its perch: Singapore’s Changi Airport is expected to be handling 150 million people by 2030, when its fifth terminal is completed.

The ambitious expansion is part of the Thai government’s "Eastern Economic Corridor" strategy, intended to turn Thailand’s three eastern provinces into an integrated industrial and commercial zone with an emphasis on high value manufacturing such as aerospace, robotics and biotechnology.

"In order to promote these advanced industries, we need the new infrastructure," Arkhom said. "With Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports already over capacity, a new airport is essential."

The expanded airports will be complemented by a $7bn, 22km high-speed railway, which is due to be awarded on a public-private partnership basis in November.

Top image: U-Tapoa was used by the American air force (USAF)

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