The tiny U-Tapao Airport (UTP), also spelled Utapao and U-Taphao, is a public airport serving Rayong, a city in Thailand. Primarily a naval aviation base, it is approximately 90 miles (140 km) southeast of Bangkok, near Sattahip on the Gulf of Siam. It south of route 3 (Thanon Sukhumvit) at km 189, about a 45 minute drive from Pattaya (Thailand’s most popular beach resort).
U-Tapao has become sole, if meager and hellish ray of hope for the thousands of desperate passengers stranded in Bangkok due the forced closure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports by the P.A.D. movement in Thailand.
Thai Airways International announced that it will provide 31 special flights to and from U-Tapao Airport to serve stranded tourists. It said 18 flights will leave the airport and 13 flights will land at the airport.
The Thai release said tourists must check in at the Centara Grande Hotel at Central World five hours before departure. Passengers, who arrive on the 13 in-bound flights, will be transferred to the Centara Grande, it said.
Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has activated a contingency plan to cater for its passengers stranded in Bangkok due to the closure of the Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
In a statement, MAS director of operations Datuk Tajuden Abu Bakar said, “Instead of operating out of Bangkok, we have temporarily shifted our flight operations to the U-Tapao International airport. This alternative is in addition to our twice daily flights from Phuket which is also open on seat-available basis to our ticket holding passengers who wish to travel out of Thailand. However, customers will have to reach U-Tapao on their own. Likewise customers who wish to travel on any one of our twice daily flights from Phuket will also have to make it to the island resort on their own,” he added.
Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) said yesterday it would organise a special flight to U-Tapao to pick up tourists stranded by the protests.
The Singapore airlines website informs that, “Singapore Airlines is operating a twice-daily service between U-Tapao and Singapore up till Wednesday, 3 December. A decision will be made in due course on operations beyond Wednesday depending on the situation and continuing demand.”
“Flights are planned to depart U-Tapao at 14:00 and 19:00 local time. However, facilities at U-Tapao are very basic and the airport is heavily congested, so customers should be prepared for lengthy delays.”
U-Tapao airport was jam-packed with foreign tourists waiting to catch a flight home. Airport authorities, say it was a major chore to process so many travellers due to the lack of adequate facilities.
There was a 2 km long queue of traffic into the airport compound and we witnessed many passengers, worried about missing their flights, abandoning their transport and walking with their baggage the final kilometre in the afternoon sun. At the airport they were greeted with the sight of an enormous throng of people and baggage everywhere.
“It’s complete chaos and pandemonium,” said Bonnie Chan, 29, from San Diego, California.
“We’ve been given incorrect information from the airlines. The US embassy says they can’t help us. We’re high and dry. The airlines keep giving us the run-around.”
While there is runway and taxiway space, the terminal facilities are woefully inadequate since the navy-owned airport is mainly designed for military purposes. It can service only around 200 people a flight. There are only four check-in counters, two x-ray machines, six counters for customs services, one belt for arriving passengers and one crane to lift luggage into the planes.
The airport is normally reserved for charter flights and Bangkok Airways and usually serves only a few flights a day. But since the the seizure of Suvarnabhumi airport by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the number of travellers has increased dramatically to 3,000 people a day, with 12 departures and 16 arrivals, mostly international flights.
A local hotel even provided dancing girls who tried in vain to cheer thousands of travellers as they tried to flee protest-hit Thailand.
Authorities had laid on extra toilet facilities and refreshments but for those with a long wait, camping outside the airport building was just one more of a long series of inconveniences, especially for those who had been stranded in Thailand for the last 4 days or more, and all of them, “just wanting to get home.”
Images courtesy Pattaya Daily News and Wikipedia