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New Bangkok Airport Nears Completion Despite Setbacks, Corruption

Thailand is in the final stages of building a new international airport which, when completed, will be one of the largest in the world. The Thai government is counting on the facility to make the kingdom the aviation hub of the region. But the project has been beset by construction problems and reports of corruption.

Trucks and tractors toil under heavy monsoon skies around a structure of steel ribs and glass, which is rising on a field of concrete surrounded by rice paddies and fishponds.

Bangkok's new airport, due to be completed September, is called Suvarnabhumi, which means "golden land." However, the decades-old project has proven to be a public relations minefield. Engineers have battled construction difficulties and opposition leaders charge that costs for the $5 billion facility have been inflated by corruption.

One report alleges there was a 40 percent mark-up on a $65 million contract for baggage-scanning machines. Another alleges irregularities in the allocation of the airport parking concession. Government officials have denied both allegations.

The president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand, Chulalongkorn University Professor Tortrakul Yomnak, says construction companies in the kingdom traditionally have paid government officials to obtain contracts. But he says these payments, usually about five percent of the total deal, have risen in recent years.

"I feel that the percentage of the commission, we call that commission, is getting higher and higher. I think it's four or five times more [than] in the past," he said.

Construction problems have also challenged engineers. The site lies on swampland more than one meter below sea level. As a result, a three-meter dike and two large pumping stations were built to prevent flooding. Engineers also had to drain the construction site, which took several years and lowered the ground level by a further 1.5 meters.

Newspapers recently reported that the sinking ground had caused large cracks in the already finished runways.

Professor Tortrakul says a team from the Engineering Institute found that a 100-meter-long crack has emerged, but he says this is on the edge of the runway and does not pose a threat to the operation.

"There is what we call the differential sediment between the taxiway and the runway," he said. "So actually we need more time for the taxiway to sink, about 40 to 50 centimeters more."

The new airport, which was first planned decades ago, lies on 35 square kilometers of land east of the Thai capital.

It will replace Bangkok's 60 year-old Don Muang airport, located a few kilometers from downtown, which was originally a military airport with one runway. Don Muang has been expanded to the point that it handled 38-million passengers last year. But the construction chief of the new airport, John Murray, says over the sound of building machinery that the old airport has no room left to grow.

"That airport has reached its capacity because the runways are too close together and the airport can't operate them simultaneously," explained Mr. Murray.

When the new airport opens next year, its two runways, four kilometers long and two kilometers apart, will allow simultaneous take-offs and landings every 45 seconds.

The seven-story terminal, one of the largest in the world, will cover the equivalent of one hundred football fields and will be able to handle 45 million passengers a year, or 9,000 per hour, through its 360 check-in counters. It will be able to berth simultaneously 120 airplanes, including five of the world's largest passenger plane, the new double-decker Airbus 380.

The airport will also boast the world's tallest airport control tower, 132 meters or 44 stories high. Its catering facilities will be able to prepare 65,000 passenger meals a day. And for transiting passengers, it will house scores of restaurants and snack bars, a 600-room hotel and a shopping mall of duty free stores.

Experts say a major challenge for any new airport is providing understandable signs for passengers. Officials plan to test the new airport by hiring college students to find their way unattended from the terminal entrance to the boarding gates.

John Murray, the construction chief, says the new airport is a major part of the Thai government's goal of making the kingdom the premier aviation hub in the region.

"They [the government] want to make this a showpiece," he added. "It wants it to be number one in the world in security, attractive to use, easy to use."

The Thai government has staked its reputation on Bangkok's new airport. And despite the difficulties, most experts believe the facility will provide an attractive, modern gateway to the region.

But to compete with other airports in the region, they say, the new facility will have to quickly process large numbers of passengers and their luggage, while satisfying the rigorous security requirements of today's air travel.