Stranded tourists strain old Thai air base

With one luggage scanner and a tiny check-in hall, a Vietnam War-era naval air base in Thailand struggled on Friday to cope with thousands of tourists left stranded by a political crisis.

The government began shuttling travellers by bus to U-Tapao, 150 km (90 miles) east of Bangkok, as an alternative landing site for airlines after protesters forced the closure of the capital's two main airports this week.

Nearly 60 flights had left by Friday afternoon, while inbound flights were expected to bring tourists for the peak holiday season, pushing the air base to its limits.

"Don't forget we're not Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang airports. The convenience and speed of services should be not be the same," Rear Admiral Surapong Ayasanond told Reuters at the base, which normally handles 14 flights a day.

People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters laid siege to Suvarnabhumi, Thailand's main hub for nearly 15 million visitors a year, and the Don Muang domestic airport this week.

The sit-ins have forced hundreds of flight cancellations, stranded thousands of tourists and grounded millions of dollars of air cargo.

Built in the 1960s as a major staging area for the U.S. war in Indochina, U-Tapao's single runway can handle aircraft as large as an Airbus A380 superjumbo, Surapong said.

But with only four check-in counters, one baggage scanner, and a flight schedule hand-written on a white bulletin board, service was painfully slow in the cramped terminal building.

Included in the delays is the wife and child of England rugby league captain and Leeds Rhinos player Jamie Peacock.

Peacock's wife Faye, 33, who is six months pregnant, their son Lewis, four, and Faye's mother Pat were due to fly back to England from Bangkok on Monday when Suvarnabhumi international airport was overrun by protesters.

He said: "I think the story has gone under a little bit, and more of an effort needs to be made to get all the people who are stuck there out of there, because the country is on the brink of a lot of trouble."

Meanwhile some travellers took the delays in their stride.

"I don't have a visa but the airline helped me to stay at a hotel. It's no problem, but I'm glad I will go home," said an Iranian businessman stranded since Tuesday.

In Bangkok, Transport Minister Santi Prompat said national carrier Thai Airways would start flying 30,000 stranded tourists from the air force base adjacent to Don Muang from Saturday.

Fliers would be checked-in at city subway stations and shuttled by bus to the heavily-guarded airbase, he said.

Several major Asian carriers announced special flights to pick up stranded passengers and crew from U-Tapao, near the tourist town of Pattaya, or other Thai airports.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said it would operate two flights on Friday and Saturday.

South Korea's Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines began sending flights on Thursday to carry up to 1,100 passengers.

Malaysian Airline has also put on flights, while a decision was expected soon on whether Kuala Lumpur would also send a military flight to pick up stranded passengers.

Taiwan's Eva Airways said it would put on two round trips to U-Tapao on Friday and Saturday.

China Airlines, put on a flight from Taipei to the northern city of Chiang Mai on Friday and will use a large plane for its Taipei-Chiang Mai flight on Saturday.

Manila's second largest carrier, Cebu Pacific Air, said it had cancelled all its flights to Bangkok until next Wednesday. Philippines Airlines also stopped flights but said it would review its decision daily.

The airport invasions have angered Thai tour operators and airlines as both domestic and foreign tourists cancel trips, threatening big financial losses and tarnishing Thailand's image.

But Australian golfer Ian Gonsal shrugged off the chaos.

"I'm sure Thailand will get through it," he said. "Of course I'll be back. See you next year."