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Here comes another one: Planes are filling the air over Phuket

Record Flights Spark New Phuket Airport Approval

Friday, April 25, 2008
A NEW two billion baht terminal is to be built at Phuket International Airport as a record number of arrivals and departures speeds its own journey towards maximum capacity.

The race is now on to stay ahead of the island's growing popularity.

Under a seven-year plan, the new terminal will eventually accommodate 15 million passengers a year. Phuket will not be able to handle more.

But first, the airport is to gain a temporary carpark at a cost of about 10 million baht to cope with the pressures of an astonishing number of travellers.

A total of 38,368 domestic and international flights landed and took off from the airport in 2007, a 32.34 percent increase on the previous year.

The general manager of the airport, Wicha Nurnlop, and his senior management team revealed to Phuketwan on April 24 that planning is in place to deal with the unpredicted rate of growth in Phuket's popularity.

It's little wonder that the existing 420-space carpark is overflowing.

The number of tourists travelling to the island has far exceeded expectations, and at times, flights arrive in a rush.

At one critical stage, the airport handled 11 in-bound flights in an hour. That kind of pressure helped to hasten the decision to expand the airport as fast as possible.

First item on the airport management team's strategic agenda is enlargement of the carpark, where at present visitors are forced to double up in single-vehicle spaces or even park in the street.

''The capacity for both buses and cars is being exceeded,'' Khun Wicha said. ''We are going to create a temporary car park behind the administration block.''

Talks are taking place with concessionaires. Work is expected to begin on the carpark ''in the next few months.''

About 5.5 million passengers arrived last year, with the expanded existing airport now able to handle a maximum of 6.5 million.

Although the controlling Airports of Thailand organisation has a new board, the go-ahead has already been given for major works that will bring big changes at the airport.

''We are going to build a new terminal,'' Khun Wicha said. ''It will take about two years. We have to first present the project to the local authorities to conform with their needs.''

Given the extraordinary growth in the incoming-outgoing figures, can Phuket cope while the new terminal is being built?

''That's a good question,'' Khun Wicha said. ''That's quite a challenge for us. The passenger traffic has grown faster than we have estimated.

''We have development that was anticipated over five years now taking place within three years.

''On day to day operations, we will have to confront many problems, including a shortage of areas for the passengers.

''We already have finished the previous extension process that relieved the problem of passenger check-in.''

Why has there been such an increase in flights?

''Phuket is still relatively cheap as a destination, although some local property prices are expensive.In tropical areas around the world, you cannot find a better destination.

''Many countries have beaches. But if you want to have everything, beautiful beaches, warm water, coral both deep and shallow, Phuket has all these things.''

What about the pressure from the growing size aircraft?

''Today the airport can accommodate most of the biggest aircraft in the world, including the Boeing 747 and the Airbus 340. We cannot accommodate the A380. If they land here, the island will sink.'' (Laughter all round). ''Not many countries can accommodate that aircraft. It's very big.''

And the growing number of flights? Can Phuket cope?

''We think about that question every day. Now we have 120 flight on average every 24 hours. The problem is not the number of flights but the aircraft parking zones.

''We have 23 parking lots and seven of those can accommodate 747s at the same time.

''Because of these limitations, we are going to expand with a new terminal and increase the number of spaces for aircraft.

''It will be a carefully designed new terminal because we have limited space at the airport. We can buy no more land. They have to build within the limitation of existing space.

''Under our seven year project we want to be able to accommodate 15 million passengers. After we build the new terminal, we are going to eliminate the old one.''

It's going to be a matter of building the old buildings then rebuilding the old buildings as you go along?

''We must do that because we have no more land to expand. We will have to dig for the carpark and dig for the terminal. Dig down.''

Are you generall happy with what you have seen on Phuket since you became general manager?

''We work with many everyday problems. The building is very old. People complain. It's not good. We would prefer to have them happy.''

Are you concerned about the first impression tourists get when they come through Customs and Immigration? Are you satisfied with the way that happens now?

''No. The sub-system is not fully functional. Immigration does not have enough staff, even though we have enough counters.

''Even the airlines themselves sometimes perform as though they are the only ones involved. So we have to work more with them to solve problems.

''We have a meeting every month and talk every day about the sub-system. Close communication with them cannot solve the problems completely. But it can relieve the problems.''

Is there some particular problem time during the week when lots of planes still come in together, despite what airlines know?

''We experienced 11 flights in one hour. That was a large burden on the airport. It nearly exploded. (No laughter here.)So high-ranking officials now understand our problems.

''That was the trigger for the plans for the new terminal. Eleven flights in one hour? Our superiors approved the new terminal. Just in time.

''But we cannot build a new airport in one day.''

Do many complaints come from travellers? People tend to complain more than they offer praise.

''Our aim is to win the admiration of people who use the airport. Sometimes we try so hard, but we still have complaints. For example, there is the temperature of the terminal, whether it is hot, or warm, or cold.

''We still struggle to accommodate the passengers' needs. So our staff have to smile more than normal. We smile, and we try very hard to help.

''We still lack staff. We have to handle the pressures that will come with the new terminal.

''Our staff are being trained to a higher level. It is not like a department store. We have to cope with the extra emotional stress of everyone involved. That includes the passengers, staff, and even government officers.''

Khun Wicha, 54, a Wing Commander, returned to Phuket International Airport in February after four months as Director of Haad Yai International Airport. Before moving to Haad Yai in October 2007, Khun Wicha spent three years as second-in-charge at Phuket.

Phuketwan would like to thank Khun Wicha and his team for making themselves available for the comprehensive interview.


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