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Suvarnabhumi Airport : Flight Status

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A tale of two women and one airport

The struggle for fair treatment by those living near Suvarnabhumi goes on

Had it not been for a twist of fate, their paths might never have crossed. But over the last year, Somjai Panyanasonthi and Ratchanee Kaewprasert have discovered they share a common plight: The thundering noise of aeroplanes that fly overhead every couple of minutes.

Despite having lived only about a kilometre apart for several years, the two women had been leading separate lives. But over the past turbulent year, they finally met. Until then, each had been struggling on her own, devising different tactics to cope with the trauma of the noise and other types of pollution, and from the indifference of the state authorities they have sought help from.

Fifty-seven-year-old Somjai said she has been relying on painkillers every night: "My daughter-in-law has bought me the drug in cartons, which we finish very quickly; we take them as if they are sweets."

The two dream bhouses — until the airport arrived. On the left is Somjai Panyanasonthi's house; on the right is Ratchanee Kaewprasert's. Photos courtesy of KARIN KLINKAJORN and 'GREEN WORLD' MAGAZINE

Initially Ratchanee used ear plugs to enable her to sleep (Somjai, however never received a single pair from local officials). But when the aircraft noise became unbearable, especially during take-offs, the 44-year-old had to flee. For several months, she lived in a cramped rented house with her husband and their only daughter. "For about 15 or16 tenants, there was only one toilet and bathroom. The toilet did not flush well, and it was located away from the house. I was very concerned about my teenage daughter; my husband had to stand guard in front of the door whenever she went to take a shower."

Life on the outskirts of Bangkok, before the arrival of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, was idyllic. Ratchanee has been living here since 1996, and was born and raised inside the airport perimeter. Her attachment to the land _ the numerous trees she and her father planted and watered, the slow, quiet pace of life _ is discernible in her voice. "I had always thought I was lucky to be able to continue living here. Our relatives who moved out to live elsewhere still come back to take part in the traditional ceremonies at the local temple every year," Ratchanee said.

Somjai Panyanasonthi: "Nowadays I have to take painkillers every night; they are finished so quickly, as if they were sweets."

Ratchanee Kaewprasert recalls her pre-airport years growing up in the outskirts of Bangkok: "I had always thought I was lucky to be able to continue living here."

For Somjai, who has lived in the capital all her life, the single storey house she has been living in since 2003 was meant to be her "last home, a sanctuary for the last phase of my life". There was an obvious pride as she told how she had spent time and energy seeking "each plank of wood" that went to build the house; how her husband, a former national table-tennis player and self-taught carpenter, built the floor-to-ceiling cabinets, how she listened to the kawao birds chirping every morning. "My husband's cousin owns the land. When we first moved here, there was no road. Weeds grew everywhere. But in the mornings, I would be listening to the kawao that nested in the tree _ its sound was so pretty."

For both Somjai and Ratchanee, their idyll did not last.

First was the chaos that came with construction. Somjai said the noise frightened her favourite kawao away and they never returned. Curiously, the middle-aged lady said she first learned about the airport project when workers came to dismantle the pylons in her back garden. "But I still thought the planes would not fly this low; I even wondered why they would need to take them [the pylons] down."

Ratchanee recalled the series of nuisances local residents had to endure during the construction phase of the airport. There were days and nights of extensive burning of weed grass. The dumping of huge amounts of sand caused occasional "sandstorms", not unlike those in deserts, she said. Next was a loud, continuous clanging and pounding, which started at 6am and lasted until 9pm.

"We were certainly annoyed, but we took it to be only temporary."

Little did Ratchanee realise a bigger ordeal was awaiting them.

The wake-up call came two days before the grand opening of the airport. Trucks and cargo planes, carrying equipment from Don Mueang to Suvarnabhumi, passed by constantly, day and night. Still, Ratchanee tried to rationalise to herself and her mother, making an observation at the time: "Maybe our house was just on the path between the two airports. There is no way they [the aeroplanes] would be taking this route every day."

But they do.

While the original blueprint of Suvarnabhumi airport designated four runways (two of which are yet to be built), the subsequent protests prompted a significant change of plan. Objections from King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Lat Krabang (KMITL) and another big condominium project persuaded the executives of Airports of Thailand (AoT) to redistribute the take-off and landing patterns between the eastern and western runways. Ratchanee's and Somjai's houses, situated to the north of the western runway (see picture), seem to be among the worst affected. Between last October and May, 260,918 flights were reported to have used the new airport. For 2007 alone, the total figure is expected to reach 387,000 flights. A rough calculation shows this means roughly 44 or 45 flights every hour. To avoid the KMITL campus, the western runway has been used for the majority of flights (over 90 per cent on some days). In other words, Somjai's and Ratchanee's houses have been witnessing aircraft traffic at the rate of every two or three minutes.

At ground level, it simply means a living hell _ a cacophony of noise, with very few silent breaks.

Somjai said the first few days were all right _ there was that deafening noise, but there was also some excitement. Except for the fact that her father-in-law would be shocked, lose his grip on his walker and fall to the concrete floor every time an aeroplane flew over, life was not yet that traumatic. After all, the 89-year-old patriarch, despite his advanced age and restricted mobility, had until then enjoyed robust health. Every day, Somjai said she and her husband "would be sitting under a guava tree, chatting and guessing which airline the passing plane belonged to".

But as days turned into weeks, the initial novelty became bitter reality. In particular, Somjai's father-in-law's situation worsened. After repeated falls, he started bleeding badly. They rushed him to a private hospital. When he returned home he was unable to sleep. One night, the old man crawled all the way from his bedroom to the flooded front lawn. They found him the following morning, soaking wet and with algae covering his head, muttering repeatedly, "I'm scared; I can't live here." He died a few days later, on November 20, less than two months after the airport opened.

Ratchanee's response to the aircraft noise was grim from day one. Before she started wearing ear plugs, she barely had a wink of sleep. Gone was her bright, cheerful smile (a year later, she still rarely smiles). The nature of her work, giving rides to school for kindergarten and primary school children, added to the agony. The young ones kept shouting "Aeroplane!" every time they saw one passing by. The omnipresent green signposts with the profile of an aeroplane and the word "Suvarnabhumi" at the top caused her to shudder.

Back then, though, both still harboured hopes. Somjai said a few airport staff had visited her house twice, the second time with "almost 10 assistants who took notes of all my household items". Some in the group, she remembered, confided to her they agreed right away that "your house is certainly loud; probably more than a 100dB".

"I waited for their promised return. They never came back. A week after my father-in-law passed away, I called them, but they said I will never receive compensation because my house was built after 2001."

Ratchanee also confronted a slightly different numbers game. She contacted AoT's public relations office. They asked her to organise an impromptu meeting between them and local residents. She complied, going from door to door, informing her neighbours of the need to attend this important forum. There, she was asked to serve as a leader of her community (a position she has held ever since). They conducted a brief sound test, and told her: "Your house will never be bought; it's has a NEF [Noise Exposure Forecast] of under 40."

For both Ratchanee and Somjai, the two separate decisions by AoT officials stunned them.

Somjai said her husband was the one who contacted the local district office to submit the house's plans; he was never told about the airport project, nor that the construction of his house was thus forbidden. "They [AoT] told me the only thing we can do is to file a charge against the district office for having given us building permission in the first place," Somjai said.

For some reason, the year 2001 has been repeatedly used as a reference point when it comes to compensation.

On September 12, on the live TV programme Ta Sawang (Sleepless in Bangkok), Surathat Suthammanas, AoT's senior executive vice-president, planning and finance, in charge of allocating compensation, explained that 2001 was "the first year when there was an environmental impact assessment [EIA] study" undertaken for the Suvarnabhumi airport project.

In fact, the first EIA report had to undergo a major revision _ following its release, ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra later ordered that the target number of passengers be increased from 30 to 45 million a year, thus the need to adjust the airport's original design. The National Environment Board (NEB) reviewed and approved the final EIA report in 2005. (Interestingly, the introduction of the new EIA report stated that the first EIA study began in 1996 and was approved by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (in 2001) and the NEB (in 2002)).

Meanwhile, Ratchanee has learned the hard way the significance of, and the confusion over the term "NEF", or Sen Siang in Thai. It haunts her, making her feel powerless to dispute its usage (and abuse) by those in the corridors of power. Her life has been turned upside down since the airport began operating; but the NEF seems to make things worse.


Developed by the US Federal Aviation Agency, and using a complex formula, a noise exposure forecast relies on data fed into a computer program _ including effective perceived noise levels for various types of aircraft, frequency of flights and all aspects of flight operation (weighting night occurrences more heavily than daytime ones) _ to help predict the sound footprint and effect on local communities of aircraft noise and airports.

Weather conditions and background noise levels are not considered, and in the US and other countries, increased public awareness, and subsequent decrease in tolerance of aircraft and other environmental noise, demands continual reassessment of methods such as the NEF.

As stated in the EIA report, a NEF of 40 or more means the area will be highly affected, and the local population may start to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss. Settlements with the residents _ AoT must buy or arrange for strengthening of their houses _ "five months before the airport's opening" is stipulated. For the area designated as falling in the NEF 35 to 40 range, the effect will be lower but any activity sensitive to noise, such as hospitals, schools and temples, is discouraged. When relocation is not possible, improvement of the buildings must be undertaken.

Finally, the area with the NEF 30 to 35 range may receive compensation for improvement of buildings. In the two latter cases, regular testing of noise levels must be undertaken by the relevant airport authority.

As with the constant references to the year 2001, the NEF figures are dubious. Depending on who draws up the NEFs contour map (and for whom), the size and coverage of each NEF range can vary greatly. For example, the NEF 30 area could be as small as just a few kilometres from the airport, or it could reach into the Gulf of Thailand. For almost a year since the airport became operational, the EIA's recommendation to buy the houses of those living in the NEF range of 40 has yet to be acted upon. There is no need to talk about those in other NEF ranges, let alone other stipulations, such as the continued noise level measurements.

In the middle of this gloom, there was a brief interlude. The Cabinet's resolution of November 21 last year proposed that those living in the NEF 30 or above area are entitled to choose between selling or having their houses improved, with the AoT footing the bill. The timeframe for entitlement to compensation has also been extended to cover every building completed up to 2006. Under such a scenario, people like Somjai and Ratchani will be given money to resettle somewhere quieter.

"I tell you frankly I have spent 1.5 million baht of my life savings to build this house. I don't have any money left. I only ask for the amount that I have actually spent, but now if they gave me, say, even only one million baht, I would be willing to move out as soon as I could," said Somjai.

Unfortunately, their renewed hopes were dashed. On May 29, Surayud Chulanont's Cabinet issued another resolution: Only those living in the NEF 40 area would be able to sell their properties. Others in the under 40 area can only seek compensation to have their houses repaired. AoT was told to conduct another survey to determine the number of houses and buildings built before and after 2001 and resubmit the potential amount of compensation to the Cabinet.

So everything went back to square one, and all Somjai and Ratchanee can do seems to be to battle on alone. Not quite. On September 9, the two women joined 2,000 other residents in a protest march to Suvarnabhumi airport. For a housewife like Somjai, it was the first political rally she and her husband had taken part in (Ratchanee had joined a previous one on May 12).

"I never liked walking, even when I go shopping. But on that day, I saw even very old men walking in the sun, and it inspired me to carry on."

But for Ratchanee, the longer she struggles for justice, the more depressed she has become. A year on, aeroplane noise continues to cause her literally physical pain.

Having thought that ear plugs were her saviour, on the very day the aeroplanes switched their take-off pattern (up until then, the northern end of the western runway had been used for landing), Ratchanee knew the protective aid was just a toy. After a day and a night of suffering continuous thundering noise, she developed a sudden inexplicable sickness.

At dawn the following morning, the very first thing she did was to run to her van, sitting there for a while in a foetal position, covering her head in a towel. Spotting her husband, she ran toward him immediately, unable to control her sobbing. Her body also shook as she asked him repeatedly: "Please take me away; I can no longer live here.". Their neighbours stared at the couple. Her father, usually a stoic man, was found later crying to himself. Perhaps, he was thinking he may have "lost" his youngest daughter forever.

That was the day Ratchanee and her husband went house-hunting. Almost a year later, she still keeps the tranquilisers a doctor had prescribed her that night. The packet shows the date: October 29. (Ratchanee has since moved back, partly due to the fact that the planes have switched back to the previous landing pattern). She said she hopes she will become strong enough to withstand the coming return of the planes taking-off in the coming weeks.

More hurtful for her though is hearing the words often thrown at residents near the airport, which range from accusations of being "greedy" and "unpatriotic" to questions like "Why can't they tolerate the noise like those at Don Mueang?"

Ironically, in the early days, it was Ratchanee who consoled her mother using exactly the same words. "I told my mother 'Even those at Don Mueang can continue their lives, so we must be able to, mustn't we?'

"Now I have learned an important lesson: Wherever the thing called progress has reached its claws, there will always be suffering of the people who live there."

And her voice trailed off as the planes above her house, on their way to Suvarnabhumi airport, continued to roar overhead.

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