Airport expansion soon, aviation restructuring before Cabinet

pix - 4A draft law restructuring Thailand’s aviation regulatory body to meet safety requirements required by the International Civil Aviation Organization was sent to the Cabinet for approval last week, as the government spokesman said the long awaited expansion of Bangkok International Airport would begin as soon as the environmental impact assessment is approved.

The expansion of Suvarnabhumi, or New Bangkok International Airport, will increase its capacity to 60 million passengers a year from 45 million now and should be completed by 2019. The cost of the project has been budgeted at just under $2 billion. The National Environmental Board is currently studying the latest Environmental Impact Assessment, but has not said when its review will be completed.

The $4 billion airport opened in 2006 and was almost immediately running at full capacity. To handle the huge numbers of passengers, the government re-opened Don Muang International Airport, which Suvarnabhumi replaced, for use by domestic and low-cost carriers. In April, Don Muang registered the highest growth for any regional airport in Asia-Pacific with a 42 percent increase in passengers, well above the regional average of 9 percent. Thailand is expecting to receive 28.5 to 29 million tourists this year, up from 24.7 million last year.

Last week, the Cabinet began considering the restructuring plan for the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), the Kingdom’s aviation regulator. They are expected to approve the plan shortly. Restructuring the DCA is arguably the most crucial step in a series of reforms to meet concerns raised by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The ICAO gave Thailand a “red flag” recently over ongoing concerns over aviation safety. The concerns, which the ICAO said it had expressed to successive Thai governments in recent years, revolve around the DCA. The Department has not had its budget or staff size increased in over a decade despite enormous growth in the number of airlines operating in and out of Thailand. Its ability to monitor and regulate the industry has been compromised by lack of funds, training and staff, according to the ICAO. In addition, the ICAO said it is a conflict of interest that the DCA operates some domestic airports while also serving as their regulator.

Under the new plan, the DCA will be split into four units so that there is a firewall between these functions. Transport Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said that Thailand would be ready to be re-audited by the ICAO around the end of this year.

Thailand has been communicating clearly with aviation authorities in other countries to keep them apprised of the steps being taken to ensure safety and smooth operations. The DCA is preparing for checks by the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Administration on July 13-19.

Despite the ICAO red flag, the European Union’s aviation regulator did not impose any ban on Thai carriers or flights to or from Thailand in its latest monthly Air Safety List, ensuring there will be no disruptions in service while Thailand’s government addresses the ICAO’s concerns.

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