Several tough choices are available to the state-controlled airport operator, each with its own constraints.
Sqn Ldr Sita Divari, AoT's chairman, said the alternatives include adding further capacity at the airport's current site, building a greenfield airport in Phangnga province to the north or using Krabi airport, some 180 kilometres from urban Phuket, as a relief airfield.
The need for AoT to determine the future of Phuket airport is becoming ever more critical against the backdrop of surging passenger traffic to the southern resort island, whose popularity as a global destination keeps increasing.
Some 9.5 million passengers passed through Phuket airport last year, and AoT expects the number to increase to 10.5 million this year, 11 million next year and 12 million in 2015.
The volume projection for 2015 would take up almost all the increased capacity resulting from the present airport expansion, which will boost annual passenger handling capacity to 12.5 million, almost double from 6.5 million at present.
The scenario for post-2015 is Phuket airport returning to square one, meaning it would once again become as heavily overcrowded as it is now.
The airport is now forced to turn away many commercial flight requests.
Sqn Ldr Sita said further expansion of Phuket airport by means of land acquisition nearby is not a viable option due to exorbitant land prices.
Another choice involves sea reclamation, but this could encounter environmental problems that would impede progress and make capital outlays prohibitive.
About 100 km north of Phuket's northern tip, which is connected to the mainland at Phangnga province by Sarasin Bridge, is a plot of land appropriated by the government that could be used for developing a greenfield airport serving Phuket, said the AoT chairman.
Another option calls for improving Krabi airport, now operated by the Civil Aviation Department, so it can handle larger aircraft and more passengers, thereby serving as a relief airport for Phuket.
Meanwhile, Pratuang Sonkham, the general manager of Phuket airport, separately said it would be possible to extend the new terminal that is under construction as part of the continuing expansion.
That would increase Phuket airport's annual capacity to 15 million passengers, he said.
Space for the extension could be made available by relocating the nearby housing for AoT staff.
But Mr Pratuang said the plan remains on the drawing board and would be subject to AoT board approval, although he believes such an extension, costing several hundred million baht, could be up and running within 3-5 years.
Taking a long-term view, Mr Pratuang said Phuket airport will definitely need a second runway in another 10-15 years as well as capacity to handle an additional 10 million passengers a year.
Without present capacity restrictions, airlines could now put 15 million passengers a year through Phuket airport, he said.
Sqn Ldr Sita said shortages of aircraft aprons and take-off and landing time slots are more critical constraints for Phuket airport than restricted passenger capacity.
But Mr Pratuang said these limitations will start to ease as construction of five more aprons is completed this year as part of the continuing expansion, raising the number of aprons by a third.
Construction of the new terminal will be completed next year, helping to relieve passenger congestion at the present terminal, he said.
The new terminal, capable of handling 5 million passengers a year, will be for international passengers.
The present terminal will be used solely for domestic passengers once its upgrade is completed in mid-2015, giving it an annual capacity of 7.5 million passengers.
But Sqn Ldr Sita strongly advocates Krabi airport being turned into a secondary airport for Phuket, accommodating immediate demand for passengers heading for the resort island.
He said he will discuss the matter with carriers such as Thai Airways International to see if they can switch some of their flights landing at Phuket airport to Krabi instead.
AoT may be prepared to offer incentives for them to do so, Sqn Ldr Sita added.
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