Thailand’s new international gateway U-Tapao set to spur growth
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Thailand’s new international gateway U-Tapao set to spur growth

U-TAPAO International Airport is located within the U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, on the border of Chonburi and Rayong Provinces, near the beautiful Cape of Sattahip, some 140kms from Bangkok.

The small regional looking airport is being opened up as a new domestic air hub and international gateway to the areas south-east of Bangkok, which feature the tourist haven of Pattaya about three kilometres to the north and industrial city of Rayong about 35kms to the east.

U-Tapao airfield has a very interesting history. The base was originally constructed by U.S. forces as a forward airbase for both B52 bombing and refuelling operations. Aircraft from U-Tapao took part in the siege of Khe Sanh, the bombing of Cambodia, and later North Vietnam. U-Tapao was even subjected to an attack by enemy insurgents back in 1971, which actually brought the Vietnam War to the territory of Thailand for the duration of the raid.

U-Tapao also featured in the evacuation of Saigon during the last days of the Vietnam War with South Vietnamese aircraft fleeing to the base before the Saigon regime.

With the withdraw of U.S. forces after the Vietnam War after then Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj insisted all U.S. forces leave Thailand by the end of 1975, the Royal Thai Navy took over full operational control of the airfield, which they hold today. The base has been used for emergency relief and humanitarian missions, particularly during the 2004 tsunami, U.S. transit flights, an equipment staging area into the Iraqi war theatre, and Royal Thai navy air operations since.

Conspiracy theorists say that U-Tapao was the site of a U.S. rendition centre where two Al-Qaeda captives Abu Zubayadah and Abdul al-Rahim were interrogated.

U-Tapao is the centre of the U.S.-Thai Operation Cobra War exercises undertaken annually between the two countries.

Thai Airways have a small engineering facility at U-Tapao and maintain the fuel storage facilities in conjunction with Thai oil company PTT.

Conspiracy theorists say that U-Tapao was the site of a U.S. rendition centre where two Al-Qaeda captives Abu Zubayadah and Abdul al-Rahim were interrogated.

For a number of years, a small terminal existed in U-Tapao airfield to handle charter flights mainly from Russia and China to ferry tourists into nearby Pattaya. This terminal came into prominence during 2008 when the yellow shirts closed Suvarnabhumi Airport, where U-Tapao was used as an alternative destination.

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Pic: AP.

U-Tapao International Airport is now undergoing a major upgrade.

Rear Admiral Waisasep Chantawarin, the naval base director, recently stated that the Thai Royal Navy will maintain operational responsibility for the airport overall, undertaking air traffic control and security, while Thai International will handle many of the ground services for commercial operations, under the concept of “one airport, two missions”.

These U-Tapao development plans include the construction of a new terminal, now partly constructed, which will increase passenger throughput from the current 800,000 to over three million per annum. This will further be expanded to handle up to give million passengers in 2018-20.

It is hoped this will take pressure of both Don Mueang International Airport which has experienced exponential passenger growth since its reopening in 2007, and Suvarnabhumi Airport which is servicing over 52 million passengers annually now.

As the original construction and operation of U-Tapao air base helped develop Pattaya, which was just a fishing village, into a tourism metropolis, the airport is set to again transform the local region.

Authorities are targeting passenger growth from China and Western Europe. In addition with the potential security problems for in both Egypt and Turkey, Thailand may return to popularity again for Russian tourists.

Kan Air was one of the first airlines to designate U-Tapao as its hub. However after an extensive domestic flight network announcement, the airline suspended operations soon after commencement due to service problems with its two ATR 72-500 turboprop aircraft. Kan Air has since restarted its U-Tapao-Chiang Mai service again.

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Pic: AP.

Air Asia has designated U-Tapao as its fifth Asian hub and is now operating flights to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Macau, and hopes to cash in on the Chinese market with flights to Nanning and Nanchang. Domestically, Air Asia has flights to Hat Yai, Chiang Mai, and Udon Thani, making 46 flights a week from U-Tapao. The airline is planning to expand its network with additional flight destinations like Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Kaen, and Chiang Rai. Indian destinations are also being studied for the future.

Other airlines using U-Tapao include Bangkok Airways flying to Phuket, and Samui.

As the original construction and operation of U-Tapao air base helped develop Pattaya, which was just a fishing village, into a tourism metropolis, the airport is set to again transform the local region.

With the construction of Highway 331 upgraded to four lanes and extension to both Pattaya and the industrial centre at Mataphut, massive regional growth should be expected.

The airport should spur on the development of the chemical industry out of Mataphut, the automobile industry in Rayong, and tourism in Pattaya and Rayong. If the Air France-KLM-Thai consortia makes the investment in the planned aircraft engineering facility at U-Tapao, the airport could become a very important centre in regional aircraft maintenance, an exponentially growing industry in the region. U-Tapao will also be a catalyst in the Chinese initiated Rubbercity currently being constructed just north of Ban Phe in Rayong.

Many believe that the Chonburi/Rayong regions will be fully urbanized by the middle of the next decade.

It will be interesting to see how this initiative materialises. There will be teething problems with having a commercial airport within the confines of a Thai military base. The downgrading of Thai air safety rating may also present some growth challenges, as well as the weak economic environment that is expected over the next few years, particularly the Chinese economic slowdown.

However Chonburi/Rayong may become two of the fastest growing provinces in Thailand over the next decade.