Whether it’s flooding, traffic jams or lighting strikes burning holes in the runway, getting into (and out of) Tan Son Nhat is getting more difficult by the week. As demand for domestic and international flights continues to rise, how much longer can it last? Simon Stanley looks at the past, present and future of Vietnam’s busiest airport. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Built by the French in the 1930s, the once small grass airfield near the village of Tan Son Nhat was heavily upgraded in the early 1950s with American funding, later becoming an important airbase for US military operations in Vietnam.

As tourism and air travel continued to boom throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, the international terminal was added in 2007 and made SGN the largest and busiest airport in the country. Cheap flights and a soaring economy are major contributors to the boom, and in 2015 Tan Son Nhat was handling over 22 million passengers per year according to Deputy Transport Minister Nguyen Nhat, some 2 million passengers over its designed capacity.

At a cost of VND6.4 trillion ($283.12 million), a five-year expansion project, announced late last year, promised to take Tan Son Nhat’s capacity up to 25 million passengers by 2020. It may be too little too late.

According to Mr Lai Xuan Thanh, director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV), the airport will have seen 31 million passengers by the end of 2016 alone, with the figure rising to 40 million by 2025.

A more recent proposal from the CAAV, which has received preliminary approval from Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung, promises a brand new terminal at Tan Son Nhat and a capacity of 40 million. But is it worth it?

Now surrounded on all sides by the city it once sat outside, the size of the airport, and the infrastructure to support it, can only stretch so far. In recent months, heavy rains have left the runway and taxiways so badly flooded that flights were diverted to Cambodia, leaving authorities to consider the feasibility of ceasing operations altogether during future downpours.

“As [the airport] is still using the same drainage system as the city,” the CAAV’s Mr Thanh told Thanh Nien recently, “when the surrounding area floods, water around the airport cannot go away either. The worst case is that we have to stop airport activities when there’s heavy flooding to maintain flight safety.”

The bottle neck of Truong Son and Bach Dang Streets, as they converge on the entrances to the international and domestic terminals, is an ongoing cause of traffic congestion, but when construction of a new flyover just east of the airport’s perimeter left certain roads closed to traffic last month, much of Go Vap District came to a complete standstill. According to Tuoi Tre News, some drivers were trapped for hours amid the chaos of 8 September.

The Solution

Approved in 2014 by the Vietnam National Assembly’s Economic Committee, plans for a brand new airport could be the answer. The 5,000 hectare project, located approximately 45 kilometres east of Ho Chi Minh City in Long Thanh District, Dong Nai Province, is scheduled to begin in 2021, although the Deputy Prime Minister recently urged this be brought forward to 2019, according to Tuoi Tre.

With an estimated total cost of VND336.63 trillion (US$16.03 billion), Long Thanh International Airport will be constructed in three phases, the first of which is due to complete by 2025 and allow for a capacity of 25 million passengers per year. According to VnExpress International, stage one is expected to cost nearly $6 billion.

By the end of stage three in 2035, Long Thanh will be handling 100 million passengers and 1.2 million tons of cargo annually, via three runways and four terminals.

Despite the need to relocate some 10,000 people, Vice Chairman of Dong Nai Province People’s Committee Tran Van Vinh said that the new airport looks set to bring major socioeconomic benefits to the province, providing new jobs and homes while renovating the area’s infrastructure.

Fast Connections

Long Thanh will eventually handle the majority of Saigon’s international flights, while Tan Son Nhat remains a domestic-only facility. Allowing passengers to hop easily between the two is essential. While construction of the Saigon Metro continues to stretch further towards the horizon, it won’t quite be enough to make it to Long Thanh, although it is hoped that by 2035 the first stage of Vietnam’s first high speed train line will connect the city to its brand new airport.

Previously rejected on the grounds of cost, plans for the $56 billion rail project are to be re-submitted for government approval in 2018. Once given the green light, the Saigon-Long Thanh stage will serve as the pilot route, said Deputy Minister of Transport Nguyen Ngoc Dong at a meeting in September.

The second stage will run between Hanoi and Vinh, and later between Hanoi and Danang. Eventually, the entire Saigon-Hanoi route will be connected. “The plan is to complete the whole project by 2050,” Dong said.

With advisors from Japan and South Korea assisting with the plans, trains capable of hitting speeds of up to 350kph could turn what is now a 32 hour journey into a seven-hour breeze.

Only time will tell whether these major projects will help alleviate the ever-growing burden on the country’s transport system. As Saigon’s population continues to swell, as budget airlines continue to thrive and as delays and accidents continue to steer passengers away from country’s state-run train system, time is not on our side. For now, however, Tan Son Nhat must do what it can with what limited space it has, and as passengers, we should all probably allow a few extra minutes (or hours) to get there.

FROM TRAINS TO PLANES

The number of passengers travelling by air in Vietnam jumped 27.3 percent in the first eight months of 2016 compared to 2015 according to VnExpress International. The boom in budget airlines and a growing middle class continue to draw domestic travellers away from  train travel and into the air. Vietnam Railways recently announced that its 2015 revenues were down 50 percent compared to 2014.

FIRST-TIME FLIERS

As some Vietnamese take to the skies for the very first time in their lives, local airlines have found themselves having to accommodate passengers who may not be accustomed to air travel. In June of this year, a 58-year-old Vietnamese man caused several flights to be delayed when he spotted the chance to make a quick exit upon arriving at Tan Son Nhat on a flight from Hanoi. Causing an estimated US$20,000 of damage, the unnamed man opened the rear door of the aircraft, deploying the emergency chute and sending alarm bells ringing as the rest of the passengers were disembarking from the front.