No Relief in Sight to Tan Son Nhat Growing Pains

No Relief in Sight to Tan Son Nhat Growing Pains
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While regional rivals such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur benefit from the services of massive, modern airports, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City remains hampered by an overused, congested terminal that was originally built in the 1950s… with little relief in sight.

Unlike Suvarnahbumi International Airport in Bangkok or KLIA and KLIA 2 in Malaysia which were built on vacant land well outside of their respective cities, Tan Son Nhat International Airport is just a few kilometers from downtown HCMC. Surrounded by densely populated districts and arterial roads, the airport has little room to grow.

This is becoming an ever increasing problem, with Tan Son Nhat currently operating well beyond its 25 million passenger a year capacity. In the first half of this year Thanh Nien reported that Tan Son Nhat welcomed 15.7 million passengers, while VN Express quoted Lai Xuan Thanh, director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) as saying he expects up to 31 million passengers this year.

Limited, Inadequate Infrastructure

Hemmed in on all sides: HCMC's Tan Son Nhat International Airport
Hemmed in on all sides: HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport Google Maps

Such huge numbers create headaches at multiple levels, from road traffic outside the airport to aircraft movements on the runway. While the current demand calls for 80 aircraft parking bays only 51 are available, something that senior government officials flying from Hanoi to HCMC last month for a meeting regarding the airport’s woes experienced first-hand.

Thanh Nien quoted Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung as saying “the Vietnam Airlines chairman and Central Aviation Authority of Vietnam director had to fly around for more than 30 minutes because of the overloaded airport”.

This flight bottleneck wreaks havoc for anyone trying to fly out of HCMC, particularly in the evening. AEC News Today has witnessed first-hand hours-long delays due to planes either arriving late, or being forced to wait in long lines of aircraft waiting for a takeoff slot.

Traffic is just as bad outside the airport. An estimated 30,000 vehicles enter and leave the facility every day through a single entrance, with the congestion so bad that authorities have advised travellers to add an extra hour to their pre-flight airport schedule.

Poor drainage is also a problem. A severe downpour late August flooded Tan Son Nhat’s runways forcing Vietnam Airlines to reroute nine flights, while departing flights were delayed or cancelled. Low-cost carrier Vietjet Air diverted three flights to Cam Ranh International Airport and delayed ten more.

This isn’t the first time floodwaters have inundated Tan Son Nhat. Last year the tarmac flooded in August and October with flood waters being such that the power station for the traffic control tower faced shut down.

Band Aid Solutions

No relief in sight to Tan Son Nhat Airport's growing pains
No relief in sight to Tan Son Nhat Airport’s growing pains Photo: Courtesy flickr contributor Scott Cheng

Vietnamese authorities at all levels recognise the many difficulties that Tan Son Nhat faces. In July Tan Binh District where the airport is located announced a US$15.9 million project to upgrade the main drainage canal for the area, while Ho Chi Minh City Infrastructure Investment JSC is hoping to commence work on a $662.8 million, 9.5 km-long (6 mile) elevated road linking the airport to downtown HCMC later this year.

Scheduled to take three years to complete the project has not yet been approved and will require major alterations to the dense local neighborhoods.

Just last week HCMC Department of Transport opened a new 13.6 km-route connecting the airport to districts and provinces to the east. Comprising a three-lane and a 12-lane street the new route did little to improve traffic congestion with many drivers confused by the new route.

While plans for a new $16 billion airport with a capacity of 100 million passengers annually at Long Thanh in neighbouring Dong Nai Province continue to ferment, the most optimistic forecasts not expecting construction to commence until 2019 at the earliest and not see completion of the first phase until 2025, authorities are attempting to work with what they’ve got.

The main terminal is currently being enlarged, while the Ministry of Defense plans to hand over 21 hectares (52 acres) of land which, amongst other things, will  allow for an additional entrance, taking pressure off the now swamped solitary entry point.

However, with passenger numbers for Tan Son Nhat expected to reach 50 million by 2025 and the Long Thanh project still being talked about and it is clear that visitors to HCMC will have to make do with its outdated facilities and array of patchwork fixes for many years to come.





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Michael Tatarski is a writer and editor who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for over four years. He has covered a wide range of topics, including the environment, social issues, infrastructure, culture, and travel, for a range of publications.

He is a former contributing editor for AsiaLIFE Magazine and a former English-language editor for Tuoi Tre News Online

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