Bangkok (XFNews-ASIA) - Thailand's new Suvarnabhumi airport opened for business as a Thai Airways International plane carrying 70 passengers touched down, the first commercial flight to land at Bangkok's new international aviation hub.
Thai Airways and Australian budget carrier Jetstar Asia landed several planes during the morning, becoming the first to operate passenger flights out of the airport.
Both airlines were operating two weeks ahead of the airport's official opening, with other carriers expected to begin flights in the coming days to avoid congestion on September 28.
Suvarnabhumi has been in the works for 40 years but suffered repeated delays due to construction problems and allegations of graft.
Complaints, however, were minor with the only problem being a short hold-up at the check-in counters when boarding passes could not be printed, officials said.
"There were no major disruptions or errors this morning," said Apinan Sumanaseni, president of flag carrier Thai Airways.
Satoshi Yamada, a passenger on the first inbound flight from the northern Thai city of Thitsanulok, said the new airport is "clean" but that it took too long to get from the planes to the terminal.
"It takes quite a long time because the airport is really big," he told Agence France-Presse, adding that he also worried about the time it would take to travel from the airport to downtown Bangkok, 25 kilometers away.
Suvarnabhumi, with initial capacity to serve 45 mln passengers annually, will relieve congestion at the overburdened Don Muang, which now handles about 37 mln passengers, 2 mln over its capacity.
The government hopes the airport will help Thailand compete against rivals Malaysia and Singapore to become the region's most important aviation hub.
Jetstar's chief pilot Andrew Strauss said Suvarnabhumi would be "well-positioned to compete with Singapore" once the airport's third runway is completed. So far, only two are operational.
"And after they finish their fourth (runway), Thailand will be well-ahead of Singapore to become the regional hub," he told AFP.
Last month, travel industry experts were still warning that the September 28 opening was too soon and risked causing a host of operational problems that would hit ailines' confidence.
But Japan Airlines regional manager, Seiji Iwasaki, said he is confident in the airport's systems, including security.
The 3 bln usd project has become a personal crusade for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who once camped out on the building site to show his support.
Still, the airport has its opponents, including King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang which is located just 3.5 kms from Suvarnabhumi and suffers from the roar of overhead jets.
Institute officials will protest at the airport on September 28, as well as file a lawsuit against the airport authority and other government agencies "which ignored the noise impact on our students," associate professor Siriwat Potivejkul told AFP.
After repeatedly revising the completion date, officials were adamant that the airport would open before the start of the main tourist season in October.
All domestic and international carriers flying to Bangkok agreed last month to move their flights to Suvarnabhumi by September 28.
In exchange for agreeing to the government's proposed opening date, Airports of Thailand (AoT) had postponed a 15 pct increase in landing fees for six months.
Airport general manager Somchai Sawasdeepon said today's soft opening would help aviation authorities test the new systems and ensure a smooth official opening.
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