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Thailand's New Airport Opens, With Celebrations Muted by Coup


Thailand's new $4 billion international airport has begun full-time operations, with a minimum of first-day glitches. The opening lacked the normal fanfare, due to last week's military coup.

There were concerns that Bangkok's giant new airport might be opening too soon. The date was set by recently ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and appeared to be aimed at promoting his government ahead of general elections originally scheduled for later this year.

Mr. Thaksin was kicked out in last week's coup d'etat, and the elections have been postponed for a year. And despite what some saw as a rush to open, the first day of operation saw few problems. Passengers complained of confusing signage, too few luggage carts, slow baggage delivery - common problems with new airports.

Airports of Thailand, the operating authority, says the 563,000 square-meter, H-shaped terminal building is the largest in the world. The authority says the airport also has the world's longest runway, at four kilometers, and the world's tallest control tower, at more than 130 meters in height.

The airport, known as Suvarnabhumi, or "Golden Land" in Thai, is capable of handling 45 million passengers a year. It replaces 90-year-old Don Muang Airport, which was over capacity with 39 million passengers annually.

Chattan Kunjara na Ayuthya, director of international public relations for the Thai Tourism Authority, says the new airport was badly needed.

"The new airport will be able to accommodate more passengers, more flights, more airlines than ever before in our history, ever before when the old airport was in operation - that was getting too congested," said Chattan.

The airport, situated a little over 30 kilometers east of Bangkok, officially started operations Thursday when Lufthansa cargo flight 8442 landed a little after 0600 local time. The flight was the first of 800 due to arrive on the first day, carrying 120,000 passengers.

Opening-day celebrations were toned down due to the military takeover, which came too late to postpone the airport's opening date. More elaborate celebrations are expected to be held later in the year.

Tourism industry officials expected initial problems, but John Koldowski, spokesman for the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the facility should be running smoothly within weeks.

"Obviously, we expect that there'll be a few teething problems," he said. "But hopefully they'll be handled efficiently and quickly and we'll have a new airport that's capable of handling a lot more people with a lot less fuss."

The project is one of the country's largest in recent years, and, typically for Thailand, there were allegations of corruption during its construction. Among other things, anti-corruption officials are examining possible irregularities in the awarding, by the former Thaksin government, of the contract for the airport's high-tech baggage scanners.

There are other complaints. Residents near the airport say the noise is excessive. And a rail system to the airport is not due to begin operation until 2008.

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