Thailand to turn Bangkok navy base into a commercial airport

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Thailand plans to spend 700 million baht (S$28 million) to build a passenger terminal and runway at U-Tapao naval air base outside Bangkok, part of a drive to turn the base into an international commercial airport, a senior official said.

Construction will end in February and the terminal will open in June, U-Tapao director Wasinsap Chantawarin told reporters on Wednesday, at a press conference held to welcome the first flight to the airport of Malaysia's AirAsia Bhd.

Thailand is increasing capacity at its overcrowded airports to cater to a rising number of foreign visitors. Tourist arrivals rose 27 per cent in the first half of 2015, from the same period a year earlier.

Tourism makes up 10 per cent of an economy recovering from months of political unrest which saw a drop in visitors, ending with the army seizing power in May last year.

U-Tapao opened in 1989 mainly for charter flights and the navy. It is also a hub for Bangkok Airways PCL, which operates regular flights to Samui and Phuket island resorts. It is around 140km southeast of capital city Bangkok, and about 45 minutes' drive from popular beach resort Pattaya.

The new terminal will raise the airport's annual capacity to 3 million passengers from 870,000, Wasinsap said. The airport currently serves 120,000 to 140,000 passengers a year, but AirAsia flights are likely to push the number to 240,000 this year and 1 million next year, he said.

AirAsia subsidiary Thai AirAsia, a joint venture with Asia Aviation PCL, plans regular flights from U-Tapao to destinations in China from October, said Thai AirAsia Director of Commercial Santisuk Klongchaiya.