PM eyes global aviation hub

PM eyes global aviation hub

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin unveiled his "Thailand Vision 2030" at Government House last week, a series of initiatives to make the country a global hub in eight sectors aimed at driving the economy forward.

One part of this ambitious goal is to turn the country into an aviation hub. Mr Srettha wants airports in the country, especially the flagship Suvarnabhumi, to be able to handle more passengers to not only make the experience better and more convenient for travellers, but to make domestic airports more attractive for airlines to fly to or connect on their global network.

Mr Srettha made the case that the country's strategic location as a link between Europe and Asia, and Asia and North America can help lure airlines -- especially as expansion initiatives by the Airports of Thailand (AoT) are set to bear fruit.

The long-awaited third runway at Suvarnabhumi is scheduled to open this year, and late last year, Chiang Mai airport finally began 24-hour service.

The AoT plans to invest another 100 billion baht over the coming years to expand all six international airports in the country in terms of better runways and larger warehouse capacities to allow larger airline operations.

But there's one minor issue at hand: strong competition. The nearby Changi airport in Singapore is already a global hub; a bit further out, Dubai and Qatar are also proven global hubs.

Most carriers use these two airports as transit points, and each of these countries has invested heavily to make their airports the top choice of travellers.

Strategic location is important, but it's not everything. For example, Changi airport is not ideally located, especially for flights from Europe and North America -- the world's longest flight from New York to Singapore is a few thousand kilometres longer than if same flight went to Bangkok. However, travellers and airlines are still more than happy to go to Changi and skip Bangkok for this route. They've nailed branding and deliver a flawless experience to suit.

In fact, in the post-pandemic world, Suvarnabhumi airport has lost ground in terms of the number of direct flights from the capital city to major global cities. A study by Cirium compared the number of direct flights between Bangkok and European hubs like London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt. The results showed there were fewer direct flights to and from these cities today compared to 2019, just before the pandemic.

What has been Bangkok's loss has been Singapore's gain as the study showed that Singapore today handles more flights from Europe than it did in 2019.

Another key step needed in any aviation hub quest is to breathe new life into THAI Airways. Once a reputed airline, it lost its way and is far from being a premier airline. The airline recently placed orders for 45 Boeing jets as travel demand grows, but the airline should also focus on enhancing the experience it provides through the Royal Orchid Plus programme. An aviation hub without a strong local brand that travellers respect and are willing to spend money on is a hard sell.

Another matter Mr Srettha will need to solve if the country is to become an aviation hub is the need to establish clear regulations to stop price gouging.

Transport Minister Suriya Juangruangreangkit had to spring into action recently after netizens accused airlines flying the Bangkok-Phuket route of charging too much. An investigation found tickets were being sold as high as 10,000 baht.

Though a high price could just reflect supply and demand, without any transparent regulations on how prices are set, it could create a negative image as being a place where travellers cannot expect a smooth and fair experience.

Making Suvarnabhumi airport a global airline hub is surely an ambitious task, especially in the half-decade touted.

It took Changi several decades to displace Hong Kong as a hub in Asia, and that's only because it focused on developing infrastructure and invested in better travel experiences.

Can all this be achieved in the next six years? Maybe not, but if better services, connectivity, and facilities are a product of this initiative, that's already a win for us, right?

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