With a gloomy global economy, higher fuel costs, the proliferation of airline alliances and more airlines opting for bigger, longer-haul aircraft, Southeast Asia's ever-expanding airports are flying into increasingly uncertain skies.
One sign of the troubled times: More than a dozen airlines have stopped flying to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok over the past three years.
Airport authorities aren't pushing the panic button yet, with the possible exception of Malaysia's new US$2.4 billion dollar Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
Since the opening of the state-of-the-art KLIA in 1998, Lufthansa, Qantas, British Airways and All-Nippon Airways all ceased flights to Kuala Lumpur.
Over the past two years, Alitalia, Air Portugal, Balkan-Bulgarian Airlines, Canadian Airlines, Czech Airlines, Lot Polish Airlines, Malev Hungarian, Sabena and Tanom Romania have stopped their flights to Bangkok's Dom Muang International Airport.
While Dom Muang has responded philosophically to the trend, KLIA has taken a more pro-active approach.
Effective May 1, the Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad (MAHB) -- operator of KLIA -- granted a one-year waiver of loading and parking fees for all new airlines servicing the new state-of-the-art-airport.
The incentive has already persuaded All-Nippon Airways to return.
"So far, four airlines have come in since May, while another two have expressed interest," MAHB chairman Basir Ismail said.
The incentive has cost the airport millions of ringgit in landing fees. Earlier this month, MAHB signed a memorandum of understanding with Dutch operator Schipol International BV to sell it 30 percent equity in the Malaysian enterprise. The government reportedly hopes Schipol, operator of Amsterdam airport, can help turn the KLIA into more of a regional hub for air traffic.
Bangkok, traditionally a much bigger aviation hub than Kuala Lumpur, has so far avoided such drastic measures.
"The main reason for the stoppage of airlines coming here is because of the economies of the countries of origin," said Airport Authority of Thailand deputy managing director Bancha Pattanaporn.
Even with the drop off of airlines servicing Bangkok, the airport still has 82 carriers to serve compared with Kuala Lumpur's 41.
And while some carriers have stopped coming, others such as Lufthansa have picked up the slack. In May Lufthansa increased its weekly flights to Bangkok from seven to ten.
"We will absorb this traffic, there is no question," said Hagan Keilich, general manager for Lufthansa's Bangkok office. He noted that many of the airlines that have stopped serving Bangkok were from Eastern Europe, whose passengers can now cram onto Lufthansa flights to Bangkok from Frankfurt.
"The tendency is for the big carriers to increase their flights to this hub," said Keilich.
Airplane alliances have facilitated that trend. It means that while airports are getting fewer planes, they are coming in fuller.
"Our revenues from landing charges may be lower than before the formation of airline alliances but the number of passengers is no different," said AAT's Bancha.
A more worrisome trend for Dom Muang is that many airlines are using larger bodied aircraft, capable of long haul flights without stopovers in Bangkok. Garuda Airlines, for instance, is now debating whether to discontinue its Bangkok stopover on its Bali-Frankfurt flight.
The tendency to skip smaller Asian aviation hubs is expected to increase as the new long-haul airborne leviathan, Airbus 380, capable of carrying 550 passengers, lumbers into the skies in 2006 and Boeing's Sonic Cruiser jets, flying at 95 percent the speed of sound, become available in 2007.
Boeing Company chairman Philip Condit, on a recent trip to Singapore, warned that the new sonic jets could result in passengers bypassing traditional hubs such as Singapore and Bangkok.
Such scary scenarios are already forcing regional airports to stay competitive by price cutting.
Singapore Changi Airport, for instance, has this year managed to attract cargo business away from neighboring Malaysia by undercutting KLIA's freight rates, said Walter Culas, chairman of the Airfreight Forwarders Association of Malaysia.
"Now cargo is being sent by road to Singapore to be flown out because the rates in Singapore are much cheaper," said Culas.
Air cargo from KLIA has dropped about 40 percent this year, compared with 2000, due to the global economic slowdown.
While cargo traffic is down regionwide, what is saving Southeast Asian airports this year is tourism. Tourist arrivals in Malaysia during the first half of this year reached US$7.23 million, an increase of 44 percent compared with the same period last year.
A robust tourism industry meant arrivals at Bangkok airport during the "Asian crisis" years of 1997 to 2000 grew an average of 6 percent, compared with 1 to 4 percent declines witnessed at other Southeast Asian airports.
Despite its prime status as a tourism hub, Thailand continues to drag its feet on setting up a new international airport for Bangkok.
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