The mammoth task of moving an airport

As the opening date for Bangkok's new airport nears, preparations are being finalised for one of the largest logistical operations in global aviation history moving millions of tonnes of aircraft and equipment from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi within roughly 12 hours.

There have been a number of recent airport moves in the Asia-Pacific: Seoul, Hong Kong airport, Nagoya and Kuala Lumpur airport - but none involved the volume of equipment in an airport the size of Don Muang, believed to be the largest in the Asia-Pacific in terms of aircraft movement.

As the major user of Bangkok airport, Thai Airways International has spent years carefully planning the logistics, according to Kobchai Srivilas, senior executive vice-president for corporate planning and information technology services.

Speaking at an aviation seminar organised by the Asian Business Forum last week, Mr Kobchai said the relocation involved a military-style logistical exercise that began with an inventory and analysis of the total volume of equipment, a plan to identify where it would be loaded and unloaded, as well as transport routes and potential bottlenecks.

Five business units, including catering and cargo, plus the operations centre, will have to transferred. At stake are thousands of tools, spare parts, engines, cargo containers, pallets, loading/unloading equipment, kitchenware, cranes, forklifts, cabin items, IT hardware, aircraft-moving vehicles, and more.

These have been classified into eight "packaging" units and will be transported via 2,928 trips between the two airports, mostly by 10-wheel trucks.

The majority of the equipment will have to be moved between the time Don Muang airport shuts down after the last commercial flight lands/takes off and six hours later when the new airport opens the following morning.

This operation will to be precisely timed and directed by a communication network (trunk radio, LAN, PBX, mobile phone, GPRS) to ensure smooth traffic flow.

The entire operation has been phased over 15 weeks, and the vast majority of the equipment mainly administrative related material not required for direct aircraft operations will begin to be moved 13 weeks before D-day.

A critical element of the move was determining the best day of the week. This involved analysing both the number of aircraft movements, plus the state of traffic along the routes to be used. It was decided that Thursday night would be the best, allowing the airport to open on a Friday.

Although Mr Kobchai said that Friday Sept 29 had been tentatively given the green light, this was denied by Dr Suwat Wanisubut, director of the Office of the Suvarnabhumi Airport Development Committee, who said that it was "impossible". He then projected a date in December.

The entire move will be televised. Mr Kobchai said there had been no serious threats or issues to the move, except a small fire in the catering department at Suvarnabhumi airport, which delayed the process slightly.

Even as the equipment is on the move overland, a total of 24 THAI aircraft will have to be flown from the two airports. The trip distance of 28 nautical miles will be covered in 13 minutes, with the aircraft flying at an altitude of 2,000 feet, at a cruising speed of 210 knots. The first "moving flight" will be at 3 pm on the day of the move and the last at 1.45 am.

The last THAI commercial flight taking off from Don Muang is expected to be TG 662 to Shanghai. The first departure from Suvarnabhumi is expected to be TG 008 at 0630 to Uthai Thani.

Asked if people should avoid those initial flights just to be on the safe side in case of airport equipment malfunctions and the delays that will result, as happened at both Hong Kong airport and Kuala Lumpur, Mr Kobchai indicated that exactly the opposite was happening as many wanted to be part of history by being on one of the first flights out of Suvarnabhumi.

While moving equipment and aircraft will be only a logistical issue, another key issue is the "software", the impact on airport staff, for many of whom a move of this magnitude will require finding new homes, schools and adjusting to an entirely new environment.

The airline fears a serious impact on service delivery and standards if key staff have to leave the company either by choice or circumstance.

THAI hired Abac to survey and analyse staff needs, concerns and expectations, involving 17,433 staff, including 6,747 in operations alone.

The survey indicated the following concerns, Mr Kobchai said: a changed way of life, increased transport costs, relocation of children's schools and resistance to change caused by inadequate internal communication.

The airline has had to help staff find alternative homes via long-term installment schemes and low down-payment/interest rates. For staff who chose to remain in their existing homes, staff buses will have to be provided by the airline to help them make the daily commute.

Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mailed feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.

(Source Bangkok Post)