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Thailand’s travel slump clouds outlook for $9bn ‘Airport City’



BANGKOK — Thailand has pushed ahead with an ambitious airport expansion in the Bangkok region despite the plunge in air traffic during the coronavirus pandemic.

The expansion, dubbed the Eastern Airport City project, will double the total capacity of three airports around the Southeast Asian nation’s capital to about 160 million passengers by 2024 at a cost of 290 billion baht ($9.4 billion).

The buildup is meant to boost tourism, a sector that contributes roughly 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product. Planners envision aviation-related businesses, such as aircraft maintenance, eventually rivaling the country’s auto industry.

But the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to those assumptions. 

Thailand has essentially halted all international flights as part of virus-related travel restrictions. While 40 million foreign travelers flew into Thailand last year — mainly Chinese tourists — demand is not expected to recover completely until at least 2023, according to state-run Airports of Thailand. The airports risk being stuck with excess capacity when the expansions are complete.

In a sign of the aviation industry’s plight, Bangkok-based budget carrier NokScoot Airlines on Friday approved a plan to liquidate the company after just five years in business.

In April, Airbus pulled out of a joint agreement with flag carrier Thai Airways International to develop an aircraft maintenance center due to the pandemic. Thai Airways filed for bankruptcy protection the following month.

Maintenance facilities are a key part of the $9 billion project.  Airport City will include an additional passenger terminal at U-Tapao airport 150 km southeast of Bangkok, a commercial plaza and a maintenance, repair and overhaul center for aircraft. The complex would be unique among Southeast Asian air hubs.

But if airlines do not expand their fleets, the maintenance center and plans to attract investment in aircraft component production would be put at risk.

A state development agency signed a 50-year operation and investment deal for Airport City on June 19 with a consortium of private interests, including Bangkok Airways.

U-Tapao airport will “be the starting point for other ongoing projects which will help Thailand to grow steadily and sustainably in the future,” Bangkok Airways CEO Puttipong Prasarttong-Osoth said during the signing ceremony.

Bangkok Airways suffered a net loss of 300 million baht during the quarter ended in March, compared with a profit of 500 million baht a year earlier. Earnings have continued to go south, and the airline has lobbied for government aid.

The carrier is funding the U-Tapao work with out-of-pocket capital and credit from lenders. The airline’s stock has tumbled 20% since the day of the signing ceremony, based on Monday’s closing price.

The two airports closer to Bangkok, Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi, also are undergoing expansion by their operator, Airports of Thailand.

A high-speed rail link will connect the three airports in a one-hour trip. A consortium led by Thai conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group is building the $7 billion line. This forms a major part of the Eastern Economic Corridor development zone, the centerpiece of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s business agenda.

Not everyone is pessimistic about the outlook for air travel.

Kanit Sangsubhan, the secretary-general of Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor office, predicts the aviation business will return to normal in one or two years, leaving no negative impact on the project.

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Huge rise in travel-related coronavirus cases in Ireland




THERE HAS been a significant rise in the number of travel-related coronavirus cases in the Republic of Ireland.

After a number of days with low cases and no new deaths, the Republic of Ireland yesterday recorded six new deaths and 23 new cases– the highest figures in several weeks.

At a time where the debate on closing borders is raging and Irish people have been urged not to go on holidays abroad, rather remain in Ireland for the summer, the rise in travel-related cases is particularly worrying.

Dr Ronan Glynn, Acting Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health, yesterday told a press briefing that “15 of today’s confirmed cases are directly or indirectly related to travel”.

“NPHET today reiterates that all non-essential travel overseas should be avoided.”

Earlier this month, the Government decided to delay the publishing of a ‘Green List’ of countries which will be open for non-essential travel– namely, for holidays.

The plans were pushed back until 20 July after a concerning rise in cases both at home and abroad, and after images spread of revellers not adhering to social distancing in the streets after pubs opened in Ireland.

With pubs reopening, complacency amongst young people is a particular concern to the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

Acting CMO Dr Ronan Glynn told the press briefing yesterday that out of the 23 new cases, “77% of cases… are under 25 years of age.

“Covid-19 is extremely infectious and none of us are immune. It is important that we all continue to follow public health advice and risk assess our actions.”

Professor Philip Nolan, chair of the NPHET Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group, said there is “an immediate need for us all to take care and caution in our decisions and actions”.

Speaking yesterday, he revealed that the R number is now at or above 1, meaning each infected person is infecting at least one other person with the virus, allowing it to spread quickly through the community.





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How Covid-19 will change air travel as we know it




In the heart of Australian outback lies Alice Springs. The town – colloquially known as Alice – is the site of indigenous human presence dating back nearly 30,000 years. More recently, however, a new (and admittedly very different) type of settler has descended upon Alice. Since April, four Airbus A380s have made their way to the small town. The 500-plus-tonne behemoths belong to Singapore Airlines which, like many other carriers, has grounded almost its entire fleet.

The reason is Covid-19. The spread of the novel coronavirus has caused passenger demand to collapse, forcing airlines to park, rather than fly, their planes. Alice offers conditions ideal to do just that. The local airport has a runway long enough to land commercial airplanes and the climate is dry, which means aircraft parts corrode far slower than in the sweltering heat and humidity of South East Asia.

Slumps in travel demand aren’t new. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, passenger enthusiasm towards flying also waned amid security fears. This forced airlines – then, like now – to cancel flights and puts planes into storage. The industry did recover. Passenger numbers for 2002 were 1.63 billion, only slightly lower than the 1.66 billion who flew in 2001. But passenger numbers don’t tell the whole story.

The 9/11 attacks also forced airlines to trim costs through furloughs, layoffs, and most notably, consolidation. Prior to the attacks, the US airline market – the world’s most lucrative – was largely controlled by eight carriers. Today, its four. Following the attacks, airlines also became more cautious and shelved plans for aggressive expansion. This led to fewer flights overall and for passengers, less space as planes got fuller.

Whether Covid-19 has a similar impact on the industry and how passengers fare in the aftermath will depend on a few things.

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The collapse in air travel demand has been driven largely by public policy. As Covid-19 spread, governments worldwide chose – in the interests of preserving public health – to ban entry to non-residents. Some countries like India, Malaysia and South Africa stopped issuing visitor visas. Others like the Australia, New Zealand and the United States suspended visa-free travel reciprocity. The move not only ended the plans of millions of travellers but also forced airlines to stop serving once-lucrative markets. Flying empty planes around makes little fiscal sense. Consequently, getting planes back in the air will require an easing of government entry restrictions.

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BBC – Travel – Chinguetti: Mauritania’s ancient Saharan city




Rising like a mirage on the edge of Mauritania’s vast Erg Warane sand dunes, the ancient city of Chinguetti has welcomed travellers seeking shelter from the blistering Saharan heat for more than 1,200 years. Founded in the 8th Century as a caravan stop for pilgrims en route to Mecca, this red-stone desert oasis eventually blossomed into one of the biggest centres of science, religion and mathematics in West Africa.

As pilgrims and scholars came and went, many left religious texts, scientific studies and historical manuscripts. In fact, so many of these historical documents accumulated over the years that during Chinguetti’s peak between the 13th and 17th Centuries, this thriving city boasted 30 libraries.

Today, five of these original libraries remain and a team of loyal custodians humbly guards more than 1,000 priceless medieval Quranic manuscripts from the sand, wind and heat. But as the Sahara continues to expand southward at an alarmingly fast rate and encroach on Chinguetti’s flat-roofed buildings, and with climate change recently causing seasonal flash flooding to rip through the town, the future of these Islamic treasures remains in jeopardy.

This video is part of BBC Reel’s Incredible Libraries playlist.

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