Thailand’s U-Tapao Airport to serve as heart of Southeast Asia’s Eastern Economic Corridor
January 31, 2023, 8:30 AM

Following three years of pandemic restrictions, Thailand’s eastern seaboard gateway—U-Tapao airport—has returned to the spotlight after deputy government spokesperson Tipanan Sirichana recently said expansion plans would commence in early 2023. Earmarked as an “Aviation City” in 2017, the $8.8 billion mega airport project will occur over three phases, cover 1,040 hectares, and serve as the heart of the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), a key element of the “Thailand 4.0” economic model announced in 2016.

Architecture consultancy firm One Works said via its website that it had developed the airport’s masterplan after its appointment by Indian conglomerate GMR Group, low-cost carrier (LCC) Thai AirAsia, and other stakeholders. The proposal included “the construction of the third passenger terminal, ground transportation center, logistics and cargo complex, cargo village for a free trade zone and a commercial center,” the company said. Over the 2021-2022 period, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) undertook a $431 million environmental impact assessment at U-Tapao, which included a review of a second runway and taxiway.

Developers expect the airport to handle some 60 million passengers annually when complete. Plans also call for an aviation training center and maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facilities.

In 2020, a planned $338 million MRO joint venture between Airbus and Thai Airways collapsed after the European manufacturer failed to meet a proposal deadline. EEC’s Deputy Secretary-General for Infrastructure, Chokchai Panyayong, cited Covid-19 challenges at the time. Last month, the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington announced that Airbus stood among several investors eying MRO investments in the country, with feasibility studies underway at airports in the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima, Surat Thani, and Phitsanulok.

Meanwhile, Airports of Thailand will solicit bids in the middle of 2023 for the construction of a $305 million passenger terminal on the east side of Suvarnabhumi International and a $1 billion expansion at LCC hub Don Mueang International for a third terminal building, Terminal 1 upgrades, aircraft bay renovations, and a new flight operation center, among other upgrades. Plans call for completion of a $6.8 billion, 137-mile high-speed rail linking Don Mueang, Suvarnabhumi, and U-Tapao in 2029.

Separately, Vietnam continues its search for a suitable terminal contractor for the planned Long Thanh International Airport in Dong Nai province. Following an inspection visit on Sunday, Prime Minister Pham Minh expressed concerns that the project risked falling behind schedule after the discovery of several shortcomings, including site clearance and an incomplete land resettlement plan, according to a Ministry of Transport (MoT) press release. State-owned Airports Corporation of Vietnam (ACV), the MoT, and the Commission for Management of State Capital at Enterprises face reprimanding over the delays.

Dien Bien Phu Airport, which serves Vietnam’s entire northwest, will suspend domestic operations for approximately six months starting in late March to undergo a $62 million upgrade to include a runway and taxiway expansion capable of accommodating Airbus A320– and Boeing 737-family aircraft along with expansion of a passenger terminal to allow for 500,000 passengers annually. Construction continues in Lao Cai Province with the planned $306.5 million Sapa International Airport slated for completion in the fourth quarter of 2025. Meanwhile, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) submitted a proposal last month for nine new gateways, including one at the Van Phong Economic Zone in the coastal central province of Khanh Hoa.

Cambodia State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) spokesperson Dr. Sinn Chanserey Vutha told AIN that the pandemic had posed “inherent challenges” to the kingdom’s airport development leading to construction delays. Delays to the first phase of Phnom Penh’s new international gateway—the $1.5 billion Techo International Airport—have pushed the opening to mid-2024 while most recent schedules will see the first phase of the new $880 million Siem Reap Angkor International Airport open in the fourth quarter of 2023. Following repeated hold-ups, Dara Sakor International Airport in Koh Kong province will open in mid-2023 if the most recent plans hold.

Air Transport

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