Phenomenal growth in passenger traffic across Asia, particularly from low-cost carriers, has fueled demand for bigger airports. The authorities, however, have failed to address this need, leading to flight delays and slot constraints.

Nearly every major capital city airport in Southeast Asia has issues with congestion. The most notable examples are: Singapore's Changi, Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, Manila's Ninoy Aquino Internatonal and Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International.

“When you start hearing stories about congestion at Changi, which is run by some of the most far-sighted people, then that rings alarm bells,” says Andrew Herdman, director general of the Asia Pacific Airlines' Association, which represents 15 full-service network carriers.

Much of the airport congestion is a result of low-cost carriers (LCC), which use narrowbodies, says Herdman. These smaller aircraft result in more departures. Some airport officials say the liberalization of air services, coupled with the success of low-cost carriers, has led full-service airlines to operate smaller aircraft in an effort to match the frequency of LCC flights. This too has added to the number of departures. Singapore Airlines, for example, previously only operated Boeing 777 widebodies to Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia.

But in recent years it has increased its frequency on these routes using Airbus narrowbodies operated by its subsidiary SilkAir.

Singapore's government is open about the fact that flight delays and slot constraints are now a problem at Changi Airport. But the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has been quick to point out that efforts are underway to fix the problem.

CAAS's director general, Yap Ong Heng, says the authority last year introduced simultaneous takeoffs and landings at Changi.

Previously, the airport had one of its two runways dedicated to takeoffs and the other for landings. But allowing mixed-mode operations increases throughput.

Yap also says the airport has implemented a program to better coordinate activities there, such as ground handling. A real-time information exchange has been established so, for example, if a flight arrives earlier or later than scheduled, the ground handlers and others at the airport can respond more efficiently and avoid creating further delays.

Another ongoing initiative is to reduce the amount of time the runways are closed for maintenance, says Yap. This is achieved by boosting resources—equipment and people—so the jobs can be finished more efficiently and quickly.

CAAS has also introduced “one-minute” departures and changed some flight routes to allow for a reduction in aircraft separation. And its air traffic controllers are being retrained to ensure they make better decisions. For example, if thunderstorms are predicted, controllers manage the flow of air traffic earlier rather than later, helping to streamline operations.

These measures all help in the short-term, but are hardly a long-term solution. Changi's passenger traffic grew 14% last year and 9% in the first six months of this year.

Singapore's minister of state for transport and finance, Josephine Teo, says the government will decide before year-end whether to turn Changi's third runway over to commercial use. The third runway is currently reserved for the military. However, before commercial airlines can use it, the runway will need to be extended, she says. It also lacks taxiways to the passenger terminals, and a decision has to be made about what to do with the public road that runs between the second runway and the military runway. Yap says he anticipates the government will address these issues by year-end. Once the government approves the third runway, however, it will still take years before it is ready for commercial operations.

Many airports in Southeast Asia have grand plans for expansion, but unlike Singapore's situation, there are questions about whether these plans will be executed on time.

Thailand's Suvarnabhumi Airport began operations in September 2006 and a second-phase expansion was supposed to start a few months later. The authorities back then knew the initial capacity of 45 million passengers would be insufficient. However, political unrest in Thailand, following the military coup in September 2006 that toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power, curtailed those plans.

The airport last year handled 48 million passengers and that number is forecast to grow to 52 million this year. Operating beyond capacity has led to lengthy queues at passenger immigration checkpoints, airlines often have to park aircraft at remote bays, new landing slots are hard to get, and aircraft are often delayed on the tarmac.

Thailand's current government, which was elected last August and is headed by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, sees expansion of Suvarnabhumi as a priority.

Airports of Thailand (AOT) recently responded to government pressure by appointing EPM Consortium to manage the 62.5 billion Thai baht ($2 billion) second-phase expansion project, which includes a concourse terminal with an adjacent 28 parking bays, and a tunnel and rail line that connect the concourse to the other terminal. The project also includes an extension to the existing terminal as well as construction of a new office building for airline companies. “Construction of a third runway is also in the plan, but the authorities still have to complete an environmental impact study,” an AOT spokesman says. “If there is no problem, the third runway will be finished [at the same time as] Phase two,” which is 2017. But a phase-three expansion may be needed fairly soon. Phase two will increase capacity to 60 million passengers per year, but AOT forecasts passenger traffic at Suvarnabhumi will reach this milestone in 2021.

Phase two construction, meanwhile, is only due to commence in late 2013. In an effort to relieve congestion in the immediate term, the Thai government and AOT have decided some carriers are to relocate to Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport.

Thai AirAsia, and its overseas affiliates that serve Bangkok, will vacate Suvarnabhumi and start operating from Don Mueang on Oct. 1, says CEO Tassapon Bijleveld. To entice carriers to move, AOT has granted a three-year discount on all airport fees and charges. The discount is 30% the first year, 20% the second, and 10% in the third. Tassapon says he plans to renegotiate with AOT for fourth-year discounts when the time comes. He also says the government has agreed to increase bus services to Don Mueang and that it is committed to working toward building a rail-line connecting the airport to the Bangkok train system.

Thai AirAsia is moving to Don Mueang because Suvarnabhumi's congestion had reached the point where “we were no longer able to grow there,” says Tassapon. It also adversely affected the airline's on-time performance.

Thai Airways International, meanwhile, is keeping all its flights at Suvarnabhumi. The national carrier's executive vice president of strategy and business development, Chokchai Panyayong, says once AirAsia vacates, it will free up slots for Thai Airways to expand. Chokchai says the AOT still needs to do more to improve runway utilization. The airport was designed for 76 aircraft movements per hour, but currently 54-56 is the norm, he says.

Congestion at Jakarta's main international gateway, Soekarno-Hatta International, is also leading the Indonesian authorities and some airlines there to look at alternatives.

National airport authority Angkasa Pura II states that Merpati Nusantara Airlines, Garuda Indonesia's low-cost carrier Citilink, and Lion Air's new full-service carrier Batik Air are allowed to be based at Jakarta's Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport next year. Lion wanted Batik Air there and Angkasa Pura II agreed to this, and also included Citilink and Merpati to help relieve congestion at Soekarno-Hatta.

Soekarno-Hatta's passenger traffic grew 19% last year to 51 million—the fastest increase among the world's major airports. Its three terminals were designed to handle 38 million passengers.

Garuda CEO Emirsyah Satar says Angkasa Pura II's plan to upgrade the airport's three terminals includes erecting a building between the first two terminals that will house customs, immigration and quarantine. But it is unclear when construction will commence.

Runway capacity also needs to be increased, says Satar. But it will be hard for the government to appropriate the land, he says. “From the airline's perspective, I am looking at how they can invest in more equipment . . . so the existing two runways can operate more efficiently.”

Land constraints around Soekarno-Hatta and Halim airports, have the government looking at Karawang, in the western outskirts, as a possible new site. Officials from Indonesia's transportation ministry say construction of the new airport will start in 2015. That creates a dilemma for network carriers such as flag carrier Garuda Indonesia, which prefer to have operations based at one airport so passengers can connect to flights easily.

The Philippines government, meanwhile, is considering turning Clark, an airport outside of Manila, into the city's main international gateway. Some carriers, however, have resisted the idea, arguing Clark is too far from Manila and that unless there is a high-speed train and freeway connecting Clark to central Manila, the inconvenience will make it impractical.

But Manila's Ninoy Aquino International Airport abuts a dense residential area, making land appropriation almost impossible. It means there is no way the airport can have a third runway. The Manila International Airport Authority, however, has plans to increase throughput by realigning Runway 13/31 so it no longer intersects with the other runway. An independent slot coordinator has also been appointed to better manage slot distribution. And Philippine carriers have reduced their domestic schedules to help reduce congestion.

Meanwhile, Philippine Airlines CEO Ramon Ang wants to build a new airport for Manila. He can afford this because his family controls San Miguel Corp., one of the country's wealthiest conglomerates.

Ang declines to disclose the site of the planned airport, but says it is a nearly 5,000-acre site within a 15-min. drive of Manila's Makati business district. The plan will be presented to President Benigno Aquino, 3rd, in early 2013, Ang says. If approved, construction could start in 2013, with help from South Korean contractors, he adds.

Fast-growing Garuda Indonesia is grappling with capacity constraints at Jakarta's Soekarno Hatta International Airport. To listen to CEO Emirsyah Satar discussing the airport's problems and improvement plans, check out the digital edition of AW&ST on leading tablets and smartphones, or go to AviationWeek.com/garudaceo