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Suvarnabhumi Airport : Flight Status

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Suvarnabhumi must be fixed

The incoming government has a lot on its plate, and a lot of special-interest groups pushing their pet projects. But for a number of good reasons, Prime Minister-designate Samak Sundaravej and his cabinet-in-waiting need to put an urgent item on their primary to-do list.

The problems at Suvarnabhumi airport are beginning to unravel. The traveling public seem to be at risk, the airport employees are unhappy, and the taxpayer is uninformed, puzzled about how this most high-level status symbol has gone so wrong. After 15 months of periodic reports of carelessness, incompetence and possibly worse, the news just keeps getting worse. Last week, a Burmese refugee somehow walked into the heavily restricted, supposedly guarded areas where the jetliners park. Yesterday, reporters of this newspaper detailed the astounding fact that almost a third of the lights at the airport are out. One could be excused for wondering just whether this expensive, showpiece, gateway to Thailand is reliable at all. At the rate airport equipment, services and security are deteriorating, Suvarnabhumi seems to be taking shape as a gigantic white elephant.

The worst problem is airport security. The public, the airlines and numerous foreign embassies and organisations are close to the end of their patience. There has been no accounting and little explanation of how a Burmese man strolled onto an empty Turkish Airlines jet inside a supposedly high-security parking area. Authorities explained they were unable to determine what happened because the 27-year-old refugee had given conflicting accounts of his actions. To call this account unprofessional is kind. No imagination is necessary to realise the extreme danger to life, limb and property of such carelessness.

Yet, airport director Sereerat Prasutanont said he didn't know if the man broke through a fence, hid in a supply vehicle, or mingled with airport workers. That means he believes a would-be terrorist gang, for example, could use any of these methods.

Airports of Thailand has admitted poor security on several occasions, last July for example. That was when AoT could not make up its mind how to improve airport security, beyond yet another reprimand to the Loxley-ICTS consortium responsible for the lack of protection. Most international airlines, untrusting of the AoT facilities, perform their own security checks on passengers. But this is no confidence builder. As a Burmese refugee showed, a violent person or gang bent on mayhem can easily penetrate the airport and airplanes.

The irony of the Burmese man's intrusion was soon clear. Mr Sereerat assured the public that his staff would increase security measures. He promised more patrols and better lighting to spot any future intruders.

That was two days before the airport admitted that the lights were going off all over the airport. Some 2,000 of the 7,200 bulbs are burnt out or broken, and not a baht is available to buy new ones. So for the immediate future at least, the chances of better security at Suvarnabhumi have become darker _ literally.

Normally, travellers would overlook the niggling, maddening things that go wrong at Suvarnabhumi. But many of these have been mismanaged beyond description _ and too often, there have been cynical reactions, and suspicions that money is changing hands under the table. The so-called ''black licence'' taxis operate under obvious protection of certain authorities _ unregulated, unmetered and a known hazard to life and limb. Contrary to assurances before the airport opened, there are indescribably long lines at immigration counters, but fewer than a third are staffed; again, there is supposedly no budget.

As the old saw goes: ''The whole world is watching.'' The airport clearly suffered from major corruption while it was built. Contractors cut too many corners. Successive governments opened the facility before it was ready. Suvarnabhumi is not only a gateway to Thailand, but the Thai gateway to the world. It can take a few weeks for an airport to gain a worldwide reputation as unsafe and badly managed. It would take years to reverse such an impression.

Suvarnabhumi deserves to be on the new government's priority list for urgent attention. The safety of millions and the country's reputation are at stake.

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