A more important role for airports in GMS

Proudly contributed by Walanchalee W.

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It is a given fact that airports are crucial infrastructures, being that they are necessary gateways for all air travel.

Statistical data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reveals increasing air travel growth rates, and it is estimated that there will be around 7.2 billion passengers travelling by air in 2036, with China being ranked as the top passenger market.

Airports, therefore, face the challenging task of having to prepare for the increasing demands placed on them, particularly on the issues regarding airport capacity and the passenger travel experience.

The former, airport capacity (how an airport can handle any given volume or the magnitude of passenger traffic within any given period of time) has become a key challenge for many airports, especially for those that were built for decades ago.

Those airports now face constraints, mainly on the physical resources in the terminal building (such as limited space and not enough gates or check-in counters), which makes their ability to cater for a higher number of passengers become more difficult. This situation is commonly evidenced in many places, but affects airports that are major destinations for tourism more severely.

Several key airports in Asia have also evidenced such yearly capacity constraint setbacks. To make the matter worse, plans for airport expansion and development have not been able to keep pace with the sharp influx of passengers. Examples of this are seen from key international hub airports in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries[1], for instance Suvarnarbhumi Airport (BKK) in Thailand; Kunming Changshui Airport (KMG) in Yunnan province, China; and Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) in Saigon, Vietnam.

BKK’s current passenger traffic totalled 55 million in 2016[2], far exceeding its designed capacity of 45 million passengers per year; whilst KMG faced passenger traffic of 42 million in 2016, also exceeding its yearly capacity of 40 million passengers. SGN faced passenger traffic of 32 million in 2016, which far exceeded its yearly capacity of 22 million passengers.

Capacity constraints are not only evidenced at international airports for major airlines, but it is also found at airports which mainly cater for Low Fare Airlines (LFA), traditionally known as Low-Cost Carriers (LCC).

For instance, Don Meung Airport (DMK), in Thailand had an extremely high passenger traffic figure of 35 million in 2016, much higher than its yearly capacity of 18.5 million passengers.

Bearing in mind, with the growth in this area, particularly from China and especially when Tourism is the key driver for low cost travel, the airport authorities need to give a serious thought and planning in order to build an infrastructure that can cater for such growth.

The table here below shows details of the key airports in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries, in which passenger traffic goes beyond or has nearly met their airport capacity.

Airport name

IATA Code Country Designed

Passenger traffic
in 2016

Airports that passenger traffic is already above the capacity

Suvarnarbhumi Airport BKK Thailand 45 million 55 million
Don Mueang International Airport DMK Thailand 18.5 million 35 million
Phuket International Airport HKT Thailand 12.5 million 15 million
Chiang Mai Airport CNX Thailand 8 million +9 million
Kunming Changshui International Airport KMG  


40 million 42 million
Guilin Liangjian International Airport KWL China 5 million 6 million
Tan Son Nhat International Airport SGN Vietnam 22 million 32 million
Yangon International Airport RGN Myanmar 6 million >6million
Airports in which passenger traffic has nearly reached capacity
Panom Penh International Airport PNH Cambodia 5 million 3.3 million
No Bai International Airport HAN Vietnam 22 million

20 million

Sources: Airport quick facts from websites of Chiang Mai Airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, Don Muang Airport, Phuket Airport, Centre of Aviation (CAPA); Mekong Trends – Air transport snapshot: A bright future.

Whilst the limits and constraints on airport capacity can be considered as being a technical issue, it also leads us to another important challenge – the passenger travel experience.

Less airport capacity means space constraints, both at the landside and the airside areas of the airport terminal. The terminal space will be crowded, meaning passengers may have to spend more time on queuing in a smaller and tighter space as they pass through different airport functions. This crowdedness in the airport terminal may lead to psychological concerns on risk and security issues; and the limited space for passengers at the boarding gate can increase stress levels before the flight.

This limited space capacity inescapably affects travellers’ mental and physical well-being at the airport, and consequently negatively affect their trip experience.

The airport and the overall travel experience are, in fact, more interconnected than what we generally perceive. The airport is often seen as providing travellers with the first and the last impressions of a destination. However, recent research has highlighted a much more connecting role between the airport and the tourism destination, and reveals that air travellers mentally integrate their experience at the airport with the image of a destination and bad experience at the airport will have an impact to their overall travel experience.

Air travellers also look for certain characteristics, that are projected as being part of the destination image in their experience at the airport. In other words, when a passenger passes through the airport terminal of a certain destination, he or she subconsciously scans for certain characteristics that a destination has promoted to them prior to their arrival.

For instance, a passenger looks for, and expects, hospitality and smiles by BKK personnel at the BKK airport; due to the destination slogan of the “land of smiles” than airports that do not promote such image.

This is on top of the basic functions at the airport which are the key mandatory factors that also lead to passenger satisfaction.

Elements such as decent queuing time, friendly and helpful airport/airline staff, cleanliness of the terminal and washrooms, good directions (wayfindings), clear information about flights and baggage claim are fundamental components that airports must deliver. Any airports failing to deliver them at the standard expected will end up with dissatisfied passengers.

Airport capacity and the role of the airports to enhance the travel experience will become key issues for airport authorities in the upcoming periods, especially when the rapid rise of tourism continues unabated.

As airports play a much more crucial role in the tourism experience, logistically and psychologically, a well thought out airport development plan and strategy regarding airport capacity and the passenger airport experience requires serious attention from airport authorities, including those of the GMS countries.  Airports can be more prepared to welcome tourists and be able to enrich their travel experiences since the moment they set foot in a destination.

[1] The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries are comprised of China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam

[2]The current plan is to add a concourse to the existing terminal by 2020 which will allow the airport to cater up to 90 million passengers.



Bloomberg (2017, June 28). Thailand’s tourist boom puts a strain on its airports. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-06-27/lure-of-azure-waters-and-bangkok-nightlife-strains-thai-airports

Centre for Aviation (CAPA). Kunming Changshui International Airport (KMG). Retrieved from https://centreforaviation.com/data/profiles/airports/kunming-changshui-international-airport-kmg

International Air Transport Association [IATA] (2016). IATA forecasts passenger demand to double over 20 years. Retrieved from http://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2016-10-18-02.aspx

Mekong Trends (2017). Air transport snapshot: A bright future. Mekong Trends: CEN International.

Reuters (2016). Global Airport Traffic Is Growing at a Record Rate. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2016/09/09/airport-traffic-growth/

Wattanacharoensil, W. Schuckert, M., Graham, A., & Dean, A. (2017). Airport experience from a traveller’s perspective. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 32, 124-135.


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