Attapeu may face decade wait for commercial flights

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - The government has no plans to resume commercial flights from Attapeu International Airport, after services ceased more than a year ago. 

The last commercial flight landed at the airport in October 2016. No airline has made a request to operate flights from the airport since then.

A senior official of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, Mr Vanpheng Chanthaphone, told Vientiane Times on Monday that Lao Airlines stopped flights from Attapeu in 2016 due to a decline in passenger numbers.

“I have learned that every time they (Lao Airlines) flew to Attapeu airport, they made a loss because of the low passenger numbers,” Mr Vanpheng said.

In the past, authorities had planned to attract domestic and overseas flights to Attapeu airport but this did not take off due to a lack of passengers.

Director of the Attapeu Provincial Department of Planning and Investment, Mr Soulichan Phonekeo said more tourists and investors would have to be attracted to the province to create favourable enough conditions for airlines to resume flights.

“When more entrepreneurs come to operate businesses and investment projects, they might wish to travel by air. In addition, if we can develop facilities to attract more high-end tourists to our province, we can reopen the airport in the next five or 10 years,” he said.

Mr Soulichan observed that many more Thai tourists are currently visiting the province and exploring waterfalls and other natural tourism sites.

“Since more tourists are heading to the province, more investors are interested in developing tourist sites to facilitate the tourism industry,” he said.  

Critics say Attapeu is just two hours drive from Pakxe International Airport which most passengers preferred to use before taking a car to Attapeu instead of flying directly to the south-eastern province. Therefore, a proper feasibility study regarding passenger trends is required to ensure the effectiveness of airline services. 

Construction of Attapeu International Airport began in May 2013 and it was completed in April 2015.

It was handed over to the Lao government in 2015 by the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Group (HAGL), which funded construction through an interest-free loan of more than US$36.1 million (almost 300 billion kip).

The airport, located in Xaysettha district and 26 km from Attapeu provincial town, can accommodate 70 to 100-seat aircraft such as ATR-72 and Fokker.

Lao Airlines started flying from Vientiane via Pakxe International Airport in Champassak province to Attapeu International Airport twice a week from May 2016 and increased the number of flights to three times a week in July 2016.

However, the average number of passengers per flight was just 10, mainly local people and officials.

Although Attapeu provincial authorities decided to pay for officials’ air tickets travelling to Vientiane and other provinces for meetings and official business to help the airline, eventually Lao Airlines was unable to continue its flights. 

Despite the airport not being used for flights, relevant authorities have continued to maintain the facility, with some officials still working at the airfield.