A model showing navy-operated U-tapao airport’s new passenger terminal, which is now under construction. The Airline Operators Committee has urged the navy to hand over the airport’s operations to Airports of Thailand Plc.
The plan to turn navy-operated U-tapao into a full-fledged international airport over the next few years appears to be too ambitious given its critical deficiencies.
The current upgrade of the US-built airfield in Rayong that served as a key staging and refuelling base during the Vietnam War is fraught with impediments, according to the aviation industry.
For starters, while the opening of the new 700-million-baht passenger terminal is only five months away, it remains unclear how the facilities necessary to immediately support an airline operation would come about.
These include ground handling services, airline catering and airport transfer services, said Louis Moser, chairman of the Airline Operators Committee (AOC).
The development plan does not include a cargo terminal, considered a vital part of an airline business, contributing as much as 70% of total revenue.
The navy’s insistence that its personnel continue running the airport has also raised questions about their ability to deal with challenges resulting from the expected surge in commercial air traffic.
“U-tapao’s top brass claim they have adopted the business mindset, but we are absolutely doubtful,” said Mr Moser, adding that his view is shared by other AOC members.
The AOC represents 86 international airlines and 26 aviation service providers operating at Suvarnabhumi.
The navy has run U-tapao for 39 years as a quasi-commercial airport. Last year it served a mere 120,000 passengers carried by a handful airlines, just over 10% of the airport’s annual passenger-handling capacity.
But the picture of passenger traffic could change dramatically as U-tapao’s new terminal enters into commercial service next June, raising the passenger-handling capacity to 3 million a year.
The navy’s “One Airport, Two Missions” designation for U-tapao, serving both commercial and military purposes, could be problematic.
“You don’t need to be told that the military role takes priority over the commercial one and that makes running normal business airlines more difficult,” Mr Moser told the Bangkok Post.
The drawbacks as seen today will hinder efforts to attract international carriers to make U-tapao their port of call, he said.
U-tapao will probably only be able to attract narrow-body jets and turboprops operated by low-cost carriers and inter-provincial route operators whose operations are relatively small, he added.
The AOC urged the navy to let professionals, such as staff from the Airports of Thailand Plc, which operates Thailand’s six major airports, run U-tapao to raise the bar of professionalism at the facility.
The navy should make the development and operation plans of U-tapao more visible to the industry and the public with a view to welcoming greater private sector participation and joint investment.
“If properly developed and run, we think U-tapao has the potential to become a global airport with international connections,” Mr Moser said.