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Suvarnabhumi Airport : Flight Status

Monday, October 22, 2007

For residents of the Don Mueang area, the sounds of an aeroplane are nothing more than just birds in the sky

Their tolerance level to accommodate the noise is astonishing. Despite the roaring aircraft overhead, conversations continue to flow. Those who want to talk simply switch to a higher volume, or shout out the messages, sometimes successfully beating the penetrating din. At Siripan Koedkaen's house, which is next door to Don Mueang airport, aircraft noise is not considered an enemy. Indeed, the aeroplanes have long been ''adopted'' as part of their daily routine; the thunderous noise during taking-offs and landings have served almost like punctuation marks of their chit-chats. More, even as their reliable timepieces.

Fifty-one-year-old Siripan explains the situation in good humour: ''Here, we can never gossip behind people's back. Everyone speaks loudly! See, we have to compete against the aeroplanes. We have become sooo used to it.

''[Up until the opening of Suvarnabhumi airport] we were so familiar with flight timetables that we could tell what time it was by the particular planes that were flying over our houses,'' Siripan added. ''They were punctual and we didn't need to look at the clock at all. In the morning, we knew that the planes would land at 4 or 5am; it was our wake-up call.

''How about now? Since the reopening [on March 24], we haven't yet got used to the new schedules. [During the closure] it became so quiet. And we felt a little lonely. So when the planes came back, we said to ourselves: 'Aha! Here they are back again.''

In the saga over the noise pollution at the Suvarnabhumi airport, Don Mueang often crops up in the debate. Just look at people living near Don Mueang, it has been repeatedly cited, they've never complained about the planes, have they? So why should the people at Suvarnabhumi? Just be patient, and you will get used to it, too.

One public health official went so far as to quote Don Mueang as the reason not to fear the health impact of living near airports. In September 2005, director-general of the Department of Mental Health ML Somchai Chakabhand was cited by the Thai newspapers as saying that there was no study in Thailand on how living near the airport affects one's mental health, so it was not possible to tell if people will (eventually) develop mental illness or not. So far, he added, there has been no report that there are people who live near the airport and have developed mental illness.

''They should thus try to adjust themselves to the aircraft noise. There could be some effects in the beginning. But after a while, they will grow used to it. People at Don Mueang can live

[with the noise]; no one there has become mentally sick.''

In a way, the government official was correct in his assessment. Siripan says she and her family members have never had an ear check-up. ''We may have some hearing problems,'' the mother of two joked. But besides waking up to the noise at night, and discovering some cracks in their glassware collection, the aeroplanes did not seem to cause them any other anguish.

Why such a tremendous difference in responses between people at Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports?

Sympathetic to her counterparts on the other side of town, Siripan says her immunity may be due to the fact that when she was born, the planes were already there.

Both her parents have lived in the Don Mueang area all their lives; her mother grew up right inside the current airport perimeter. Siripan used to play in the open fields near the runways as a child; she even toyed with the idea of using bamboo as chopping sticks to ''bring down the aeroplanes''. Her father retired from the air force and her mother once had a brief stint working at a nearby hangar, which belonged to the airport police.

For a few of Siripan's relatives, the airport is their u-khao-u-nam (lifeline), the source of income and employment (although she says that they now complain that Don Mueang was much better than Suvarnabhumi _ for they now have had to move and shoulder a higher cost of living).

It is not that Siripan and other people living near Don Mueang are all passive to any noise. Her neighbour, Kaen Muang-nok, chairperson of the community's committee, described the shrewd, often innocuous, tactics the residents had used years ago against the annoying, long-tailed boats that plied the local canal. They ranged from scolding (with lurid references to the drivers' ancestors), to filing complaints with the staff at the piers and throwing things (including bags of excretion) at the passing boats. The noise of a boat engine, for Kaen, is far more irritating than the aeroplanes, he said.

Interestingly, Siripan explained that the common anger with the boat service, which was stopped after the economic crisis in 1997, was due to the fact that ''they came after us. Using the waterway as a mode of public transport was not worth all the troubles they caused us _ with the noise and waves.''

So why have they put up with the planes? Tracing Siripan's and her family's lives, turns out to be a revelation of the unfolding roles of the aircraft business in Thailand.

Their's is a human history of the country's aviation industry _ from the ground level. It takes more than time to get used to the aeroplanes. There is blood, courage, a sense of patriotism, and of course, a good dose of humour that enables one to maintain such a high level of tolerance.

Siripan's 72-year-old mother recalled the vivid times of World War Two. Somnuek Nok-kaew says matter-of-factly that, for her, the present is not worth a fuss: ''I have been through far worse _ the planes that sprayed bullets and threw away the spent shells like rocks from the sky; the planes that flew so quickly and suddenly dropped bombs that burst everywhere. It nearly killed one of my aunts had she not been hospitalised in time. All my chicken and ducks were beheaded. One buffalo died at the pole it was tied to.''

Even then, with perhaps a typical Thai approach to life, she described her initial reaction to the commotion as ''sanuk ... we had to run against the bomber planes. Actually, in the beginning, I wanted to stay outside to watch the planes. My aunt had to drag me inside the bomb shelter.

''When the bombing became too much, though, we had to walk on foot all the way to Min Buri. After 10 days, when we came back, we discovered our house was a complete mess. Everything was broken or torn apart. The haystacks, the rainwater jars, all the baskets where we had prepared khanom-jeen for Songkran were scattered all over the place.''

For her husband, former RTAF Captain Chalerm, the worst noise he had ever experienced was during the Vietnam war: The drowning roars of fuel planes with their gigantic air-to-air hook-up tusks; ''they pierced right through my chest.''

Back then, there was no question about filing complaints. The presence of Japanese troops occupying Don Mueang was beyond their control. So was the subsequent fight against the communists, at home and in neighbouring countries. The long, continuous years of military regime may have also con tributed to this self-imposed complacence as well.

Besides, apart from the turbulent warplanes, Don Mueang was still small, ''about the size of a bus terminal'', said Somnuek. There was also a gradual change in type and number of planes. The old lady remembers the Corsair _ the dragonfly-like areoplanes that flew over her rice fields decades ago. They were followed by bigger jets, of which the KLM airline was among the pioneers (a bridge at the entrance of her community was nicknamed after the Dutch airlines). At any rate, she said the old models may have emitted louder sounds, but they were few and far between. It took years before Don Mueang emerged as one of the regional hubs, and witness to the hundreds of thousands flights a year (265,122 flights in 2005). Unlike at Suvarnabhumi, where the locals were bombarded by massive flights virtually overnight, people here have somehow been given time to grow along and with the aeroplanes.

In fact, in the early days of Don Mueang, Siripan said the locals' signals of time were a mix of sounds _ from the bells to the roosters and other engines. Aircraft noise was relegated a backseat place, Siripan and her mother noted. The narratives of the Don Mueang folks regarding the succession and layering of sounds shows that their sense of aural perception is not any less acute and subtle than anywhere else.

The chicken, Siripan mimicked the sound, would gradually add one more note to their crowing for each added hour at dawn. So it was ''eik-i-eik'' for 2am, ''eik-i-eik-eik'' for 3am, and ''eik-i-eik-eik-eik'' for 4am, and so on.

Then there were the steam boats that plied the Chao Phraya, between Pak Nam Pho and Ayutthaya.

Siripan claimed back then she could hear the humming sound of the boats at four in the morning, even though they were kilometres away. That was her alarm clock, time to get up and cook the rice. There were also the bells and drums from the local temples, rung at dawn and dusk respectively. Last but not least was the evening train that stopped at the nearby Don Mueang railway station, at 4:30pm. ''We called them rot ai duan

[the crippled vehicle],'' Siripan noted. ''At the train's whistle, the farmers who had been working in the fields, doing the traditional long-khaek

[voluntary labour pooling], would know it was time to head home.'' How simpler life was then!

One of the terms that often springs up in Siripan and her mother's talks was the ''poor, harsh'' lives they used to lead. With the entrance of kwarm jaroen (progress), they both agree, they have enjoyed more convenient lifestyles _ money, faster transportation, higher educational opportunities (Siripan said her mother finished Prathom 4 while she made it to commercial college).

But mother and daughter prefer the good old days. Their fond remembrances are plenty: The soil was fertile and fragrant (and edible, too), the rainwater tasted sweet (whereas now it is feared to be contaminated), fish and vegetables were abundant and toxic-free, there was all the fun of Songkran and other celebrative times and helpful neighbours.

''We were poor[er]. We didn't have that much money. But I still think it was a better time for me,'' Somnuek recalled.

''Before we would cook in big pots, and share with one another. We'd never go hungry. Nowadays, everyone just thinks they have as much as the others _ TVs, refrigerators, stereos _ so they think they can live on their own. They care less about the others' feelings.''

The sense of lamentation is obvious in the septuagenarian's voice. And it turns into frustration when the topic moves to their most pressing worry at the moment: The future of their home.

Having endured all sorts of noise for years, Siripan said ''the most boring noise'', the one that she cannot tolerate at all, is the pestering of some community leaders urging people to join the Ban Mankhong project. At one time, she said, the community's loudspeakers would be blaring mornings and evenings telling the residents: ''If you don't join us, your houses will be razed down. We have bulldozers at hand.''

''One of the loudspeakers was incidentally installed right in front of my house. It was so irritating! My father, who was then suffering from paralysis, got worse, having heard the repeated threats. It pained him in particular because as the first chairperson of the community's committee, he was the one who had started the Ban Mankhong project, but his policy was on a voluntary basis. His successors, however, have abused and exploited the system. Finally, I dissembled the speakerphone.''

Siripan accepted the new housing scheme is good in principle: It aims to provide land security for people living in the area classified as state property. In her case, despite the number of years she and her parents have been living here, the Kao Na community next to Don Mueang airport has long been designated under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. Individual homeowners can never seek private land ownerships.

However, Siripan alleged, the actual implementation of the Ban Mankhong project, at least in her community, has been plagued with corruption and lack of public participation. The process was imposed uniformly, she said, without consideration for the different needs and backgrounds of each resident. Despite opposition from the majority of the locals (one survey found 320 said no while about 80 accepted the project), there has yet to be a review, nor a postponement, of the housing programme.

Thus Siripan and her neighbour, Kaen, decided to step in and ran successfully for the posts of community committee last year. It was an attempt by the old folks to reclaim the direction of their lives. However, she said the previous committee still has control over the Ban Mankhong operation. And she has yet to find a way to reach the ears of the powers that be, to ask them to take a closer look and revise the project.

Her sense of humour seems to be dampened, unlike when talking about the planes.

''I don't doubt the good intentions [of the Ban Mankhong project],'' Siripan sighed. ''It is just that the money dumped [through the programme] has only caused a division and resentment among the people. Only a handful have reaped the benefit; you can see how huge their houses are. It is literally cronyism. Those who don't belong to the 'group' just suffer, and will have to bear with cramped and low quality houses. It isn't fair. It isn't right, is it?''

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