It is a scene repeated endlessly at most of Southeast Asia’s main airports — planes forced to circle overhead or idle on the tarmac, and travelers stuck in serpentine lines at immigration desks, security checkpoints and baggage carousels.
It is likely to get worse in capitals like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila in years to come as overcrowded airports and outdated infrastructure are twinned with a huge spike in the number of aircraft in the region.
Southeast Asian carriers have ordered US$47 billion of aircraft for the coming decade, but the deals could be under threat because of the inability of airports to keep pace. That could be a blow to manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus.
“You can buy as many aircraft as you like, but if the infrastructure does not keep up, then you are going to see a degraded service that may prevent you from executing plans to grow the airline,” Association of Asia Pacific Airlines -director-general Andrew Herdman said.
The problem could force low-cost carriers such as Malaysia’s AirAsia and Indonesia’s privately held Lion Air — the world’s biggest buyers of passenger jets — to delay or even cancel some orders from Airbus and Boeing.
Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport now serves more than 51 million passengers a year, more than twice its design capacity when it was built in the mid-1980s.
Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi Airport is often beset by two-hour immigration lines and is running over capacity less than six years after it opened, which led Thailand’s government to encourage low-cost carriers to move to the old Don Muang Airport to help ease congestion.
Passengers can wait for hours at Kuala Lumpur’s overcrowded budget terminal, the hub for -AirAsia. After clearing immigration lines that can be at least 50 people long, the walk to the plane at the tarmac can be hundreds of meters with only a strip of corrugated steel overhead as cover against the elements.
With pressure from AirAsia and scenes of chaotic check-ins, -government-linked operator Malaysia Airports is rushing to complete another budget terminal that is due to be up and running by April next year.
Projected construction costs have nearly doubled to 3.9 billion ringgit (US$1.27 billion) as the planned capacity of the new airport has been expanded to 45 million passengers a year from an initial plan of 30 million.
The number of low-cost carriers (LCC) and their routes have expanded rapidly in Southeast Asia over the last 10 years. Analysts and industry executives see more growth ahead due to a lack of reliable alternatives and strong economic growth.
“Ten years ago, the airports in this region would probably not have foreseen that LCC demand could be as strong as it is today,” said Chin Yau Seng (陳有成), chief executive officer of Singapore-based budget carrier Tiger Airways.
Airport congestion makes it tougher for carriers to keep their on-time performance and pushes up operating costs as planes waste fuel waiting to take off or land.
“If this problem persists for the long run, airlines in general will have to take into account all the additional costs that they have to incur and pass them on to customers,” Lion Air director Edward Sirait said. “If customers cannot accept those additional costs then airlines, whoever they are, will have to rethink their investment decisions and spending.”