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Clogged, creaking airports hold back carriers in SE Asia

SINGAPORE -- It's a scene repeated endlessly at most of Southeast Asia's main airports — planes forced to circle overhead or idle on the tarmac and travelers stuck in serpentine lines at immigration desks, security checkpoints and baggage carousels.

And it's likely to get worse in capitals like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Manila in years to come as overcrowded airports and outdated infrastructure are twinned with a huge spike in the number of aircraft in the region.

Southeast Asian carriers have ordered US$47 billion worth of aircrafts for the coming decade but the deals could be under threat because of the inability of airports to keep pace. That could be a blow to manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus .

“You can buy as many aircraft as you like but if the infrastructure does not keep up then you are going to see a degraded service that may prevent you from executing plans to grow the airline,” Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, told Reuters.

The problem could force low-cost carriers such as Malaysia's AirAsia Bhd and Indonesia's privately held Lion Air — the world's biggest buyers of passenger jets — to delay or even cancel some orders from Airbus and Boeing.

Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport now serves more than 51 million passengers a year, more than twice its design capacity when it was built in the mid-1980s.

Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi Airport is often beset by two-hour immigration queues and is running over capacity less than six years after it opened, which led Thailand's government to encourage low-cost carriers to move to the old Don Muang Airport to help ease congestion.

Passengers can wait for hours at Kuala Lumpur's overcrowded budget terminal, the hub for AirAsia. After clearing immigration lines that can be at least 50 people long, the walk to the plane at the tarmac can be hundreds of meters with only a strip of corrugated steel overhead as cover against the elements.

With pressure from AirAsia and scenes of chaotic check-ins, government-linked operator Malaysia Airports is rushing to complete another budget terminal that is due to be up and running by April 2013.

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