Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, which opened in September to huge publicity and was designed to showcase Thailand as a leading passenger and cargo hub, faced a serious setback in its lofty ambitions last month when the Thai government ordered Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport reopened to both international and domestic flights.
The move came after the new four-month old US$4 billion Suvarnabhumi Airport faced technical and congestion problems caused by repair work on the airport’s two runways and taxiways to fix several cracks. In addition, aerobridges were not functioning properly and there had been complaints about delays in baggage handling and inadequacies in the sanitary facilities at the new gleaming airport.
As for cargo, freight forwarders have been complaining that processing times at Suvarnabhumi currently range from four to five hours per shipment or nearly twice the time required at the century-old Don Muang airport. Highlighting the overall problems, Thailand’s aviation authority in January declined to renew an international safety certificate for Suvarnabhumi.
Meanwhile, a two-week investigation into about 100 cracks that appeared on the taxiways and runways of the airport, found that the damage was less serious than expected and repairs would probably take not more than a couple of months.
However, the decision to move part of the (domestic) airline operations back to the old airport, which took Thailand’s aviation authorities by surprise, shows that the military-appointed cabinet led by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, sorely lacks a comprehensive strategy to tackle the litany of problems facing the new airport.
To be fair, most of Suvarnabhumi’s problems are not much worse than those experienced at other airports, which opened in the last couple of years in the Asian region.
In fact, the chaos that engulfed Hong Kong International Airport when it opened in July 1998, or Kuala Lumpur’s woos when it started operations in the same year, have been far more serious than what the new Bangkok airport is now experiencing.
What makes a proper assessment of the severity of the problems facing Suvarnabhumi particularly difficult, are the strong political overtones in Thailand’s post-coup politics.
"We don’t know how much of this is being politically motivated," Sinclair- Thompson, president of the Board of Airline Representatives in Thailand was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. Some of the airport woes were being used to "discredit previous administrations," he said.
No one doubts that the traditional Thai politics have played, and are likely to continue to play, a decisive role in the problems facing Suvarnabhumi, which even during the construction was already blighted by allegations of corruption, fraud and political interference.
Time will tell if Thailand’s government will be able to avoid that Suvarnabhumi’s problems will become a long, sad saga rather than a major rival for other airports in the region.