Airports fall into three general categories as far as geography is concerned. The first category is the city’s airport was established downtown and stayed there. Haneda Field in Tokyo and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam are good examples. The second category is the city’s airport used to be downtown, but it later moved to some distant location. Kansas City International Airport is a good example. Third category is the airport was built far outside of the city. Suvarnabhumi Airport is a good example. Don Muang International Airport (DMIA) (sometimes spelled Don Mueang, Thai: ท่าอากาศยานดอนเมือง) falls into the second category.
DMIA is considered one of the oldest airports in the world. It is Asia’s oldest operating airport. Actually, Thailand’s first airport was located on the grounds of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club (RBSC). This airport was originally called Sa Pathum Airfield after the Sa Pathum Horse Racing Course which was later renamed the RBSC. It was established in February 1911 when Wilbur Wright, one of the inventors of the airplane, arrived in Thailand. That year Thailand sent three army officers to France to train as pilots. On completion of their training, the pilots were authorised to purchase eight aircraft, four Breguets and four Nieuports. These aircraft formed the basis of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF).
It was always a mystery to me why DMIA was located so far away from the heart of the city as the RBSC was at the outer edge of Bangkok at the time. The explanation is simple. The person in charge of finding a location for a new airfield was looking for a suitable place high in elevation to avoid the annual flooding in the whole area so planes could operate safely. The only suitable ground was at what would soon become DMIA. The first flights to DMIA were made on 8 March 1914. This involved the transfer of the eight aircraft of the RTAF. The official RTAF airfield opened 27 March 1914. The first commercial arrival was by a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines airplane in 1924.
In 1933, DMIA was the scene of heavy fighting between royalists and government forces during the Boworadet Rebellion. During World War II, the Japanese occupied DMIA. The Allies also periodically bombed and strafed the airfield. After the fighting ended in September 1945, the British took control of DMIA until March 1946. During the Vietnam War, the US Air Force used DMIA as a base of operation from 1962 to 1976 when all US military forces withdrew from Thailand.
At its peak operation in 2004, DMIA served as the base for most of the air traffic for the entire country. There were 80 airlines operating 160,000 flights and handling over 38 million passengers and 700,000 tons of cargo. It was also the 14th busiest airport in the world and 2nd in Asia by passenger volume that same year.
In September 2006, DMIA was closed down and replaced by the newly opened Suvarnabhumi Airport. However, it was quickly determined that DMIA was still needed to handle the heavy overflow of air traffic from the new airport. On 30 January 2007, the Ministry of Transport recommended temporarily reopening Don Mueang while touch-up work proceeded on some taxiways at Suvarnabhumi which had some problems. The recommendation was approved by the Thai cabinet. On 25 March 2007, DMIA officially reopened for some domestic flights. In 2015, it became the world’s largest low-cost air terminus. DMIA has maintained its reputation as a vital regional commuter flight hub and low-cost airline centre. Many airports in the country were closed down due to the massive flooding in the country in 2011. All these runways were flooded and made inoperable for months. DMIA reopened on 6 March 2012.
On 16 March 2012, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered all low cost, chartered, and non-connecting flights to relocate to DMIA. This ended the single airport policy. Airports Authority of Thailand (AoT) was ordered to encourage all low cost carriers to shift to DMIA to help ease congestion at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Suvarnabhumi International Airport was designed to handle 45 million passengers per year, but it processed 48 million in 2011. The number reached 53 million in 2012.
DMIA is actually owned by the RTAF but is operated by the AoT. Along with Suvarnabhumi International Airport, DMIA is one of two major airports that serves the Bangkok metro region. It remains, and will remain, a vital air terminal for Thailand.