Monday, March 3, 2008

Controversy Over Second Samui Airport

Posted on: Monday, 3 March 2008, 18:00 CST

By Boonsong Kositchotethana, Bangkok Post, Thailand

Mar. 3--Renewed calls for a second airport on Koh Samui have raised a serious question about whether it's really needed.

The Tourism Promotion Association wants a second airport built on the island using taxpayers' funds, but the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) questions the plan and Bangkok Airways, which runs the existing airport, opposes it.

DCA director-general Chaisak Angkasuwan said there was probably no need to build another airport. It doubts the association's claims that the existing airport's capacity was not enough to cope with rising air traffic demand.

Mr Chaisak said the Feb 15 introduction of Thai Airways International's twice-daily services between Bangkok and Samui should have eased local political pressures and criticism of Bangkok Airways' monopoly over the lucrative route.

"The fact is that there are proponents and opponents on the island to the idea," the DCA chief said.

So it is crucial for people on Samui to ask themselves if the island can cope with more aircraft noise and the influx of mass tourism, which may harm its fragile environment and ruin the island's attractiveness, he warned.

Mr Chaisak said the new government had not pushed for a second airport or signalled any plan in that direction.

A proposal made by the government of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra called for an airport capable of handling Airbus A320s and Boeing B737-400s. The price tag was more than one billion baht.

Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, the founder of Bangkok Airways, which built the country's first civilian airport 21 years ago, opposed the idea of building a second airport with public funds.

He said the government would then be directly competing with private firms.

"To create a level playing field, the proposed second airport should be built and run by the private sector," he said, adding that he welcomed competition.

"The government wouldn't have to really worry about whether the investment will generate economic returns to make it viable," Dr Prasert said.

He cited five provincial airports that fall into this category: Nakhon Ratchasima, Buri Ram, Phetchabun, Loei and Chumphon. All built by the DCA, they have not been used by airlines for years.

Dr Prasert also questioned the need for a public hearing, which has been scheduled for March 10. He claimed the meeting indicated a foregone conclusion.

"Of course they would say yes as they do not really care if the undertaking is really viable," he said.

The existing capacity of Samui Airport was not an issue as local tourism groups claim, he added.

Following a 500-million-baht upgrade last year, Samui Airport is four times larger than the old one and capable of handling up to 16,000 passengers a day.

The airport handles 600,000 passengers a year, and could deal up to 1.6 million if environmental agencies eased restrictions, including flight curfews.

A maximum of 36 flights a day are currently allowed to operate through Samui airport between 6 am and 10 pm.

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