Welcome to Bangkok

Into the belly of this new record-setting airport

By: Fred Gebhart

Walking off an international flight into Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi Airport, the world’s largest airport terminal takes you into the belly of a gleaming machine. Exposed structural beams and Teflon-coated wall panels alternate with oversized Thai paintings bathed in warm light along cool, dim corridors. Curved, white roof panels and broad glass walls two floors above create a soaring, cathedral-like interior.

But two weeks after its sometimes-chaotic opening on Sept. 28, Suvarnabhumi (pronounced su-wan-na-poom) remained a work in progress. Every stunning artwork seemed matched with a construction crew laying cable in the shadows or erecting walls. Early baggage-handling problems had been solved, but many of the airport’s two-dozen restaurants were reduced to sandwiches and snacks until kitchen facilities were completed. A gleaming new 612-room Novotel is open and was 100 percent full, but a 200-yard tunnel from the airport to the hotel lobby was still under construction. Airline lounges are bright, cheerful and unfinished EVA Airlines’ new lounge, for example, eclipses its Taipei base, but like other carriers, EVA was still awaiting Internet connections scheduled for September.

Airlines were promised gleaming new facilities and got them. The dark and dingy recesses of 90-year-old Don Muang, Bangkok’s former airport, are history. Suvarnabhumi’s main terminal has about 2 million square feet, glass walls and a largely transparent ceiling. The energy-saving design uses natural light during the day and focused lighting at night to slash power consumption.

New facilities include 120 check-in counters and 130 immigration desks. Outside are 120 aircraft bays and the world’s tallest control tower, 426 feet high.

The German-American-Thai design team decreed that bigger is better for Suvarnabhumi. Don Muang handled 31.5 million passengers the first nine months of 2006, 10 million beyond its design capacity. Suvarnabhumi is built for 45 million passengers, with planned expansions to boost capacity to 100 million passengers by 2020.

But bigger isn’t big enough. Combined traffic for Bangkok’s two airports should hit 43.4 million for 2006, about 96 percent of Suvarnabhumi’s capacity.

The departures area already felt as frenetic as Don Muang, although Suvarnabhumi’s extra space was more obvious beyond check-in. No more walking elbow-to-elbow or sitting on the floor at gates.

And bigger is not perfect. Interior spaces are bathed in daylight, but tropical sunlight also means heat. Airport tenants complain that the building is too hot during the day and too dim at night. The departures level, with no shade for staff or passengers waiting to check in, can hit sweat level by mid morning.

Until airport managers find ways to shade the interior and beat the heat, sunglasses, a hat and a big bottle of water will help ease the wait.