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Thai Authorities Launch Test Phase of New Bangkok Airport

Aviation officials in Thailand have launched the test phase of Bangkok's new international airport which, when it opens to commercial traffic next year, will be one of the largest in Asia. Thai authorities marked the occasion by making the first passenger landing at the facility.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawtra flew into Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport Thursday with several hundred dignitaries, diplomats and reporters.

At a news conference inside the terminal's cavernous departure hall, Mr. Thaksin said he hopes the new facility will become Southeast Asia's major aviation hub and attract travelers from around the world.

"We welcome all of them," he said. " We welcome all the airlines to Thailand because we are opening our skies. And the Thais always welcome visitors, tourists. And we are ready. We will open around the end of June [2006]."

The $4 billion airport is designed to handle 45 million passengers and three million tons of cargo a year. Its seven-story terminal is one of the largest in the world, covering an area equal to 100 football fields.

Its two runways, four kilometers long and two kilometers apart, will allow simultaneous take-offs and landings every 45 seconds. The facility is to replace Bangkok's 60-year-old Don Muang airport, originally a military airport with one runway, which has reached its capacity.

The International Air Transport Association is observing the tests to ensure that the facility meets international aviation standards. Its vice president for Asia and the Pacific, Andrew Drysdale, calls the new airport a major achievement.

"It's mind-blowing. I have never seen a building like this," he said. " The last time I was here there was no roof on this building. And to see it now at this stage is absolutely amazing. I think they've done a brilliant job."

Construction of the project was delayed for years by political instability and financial crises. Mr. Thaksin made it a priority after his election four years ago, but the project has been a public relations minefield.

Critics say there has been widespread corruption, including a 40 percent mark-up for $65 million worth of baggage scanning machines and irregularities in allocating the airport parking concession. The government denies the charges.

In addition, engineers have confronted challenges such as lowering the water table by 1.5 meters on the 35 square-kilometer concession, which used to be called Cobra Swamp and was infested with rats and monitor lizards as well as snakes.

However, Thai officials have sought to reassure the public saying that that nesting grounds of migratory birds are being moved to a nearby sanctuary and the rat and reptile problem has been resolved by the presence of thousands of construction workers over the past five years.